D. M. Spencer

Spencer, Dorothy Mary. Indian Fiction in English: An Annotated Bibliography. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1960. 9–42.

Introductory Essay on Indian Society, Culture and Fiction

The novel as a literary form in India is a product of the British impact. Ālāler Gharer Dulāl,1 generally considered the first Indian novel, was published in 1858. Its author, Piari Chand Mitra, is indebted to certain early nineteenth century forerunners,2 who, like himself, wrote in Bengali, but his work, while it reflects from various angles the results of British influence upon his society and culture, appears to owe relatively little to Bengali literature of the pre-British period. Bengalis led the way, but writers in other vernaculars were not slow in adopting the new forms of fiction, the novel and the short story.

Kroeber, in his article on The Novel in Asia and Europe, commented upon the absence of the novel in India and suggested that while its development “may have been inhibited partly by the epic . . . a larger factor is likely to have been the Hindu penchant for extravagant exaggeration, which alone would be fatal to the novel as here defined.”3 Still more important, I believe, was a lack of interest in the events of ordinary life as lived by man on this earth, combined with a lack of interest in the observable differences in the personal characters of particular individuals. S. K. De, examining the “obstacles, both internal and external, which stood effectively in the way” of the development of modern drama from the Bengali yātrā (religious play) writes: “The external world had never possessed any inherent interest to the naturally stoical and idealistic Hindu . . . A majestic common sense, and rich feeling for the concrete facts and forces of human nature and human life, a sense of enjoyment of the good things of earth, a passion of energy and action are traits which foster material civilization but which are antagonistic to Hindu ideas of placid contentment, to the insensibility, amazement and ecstasy of religious devotion, to the wistfulness and pathos of spiritual desire.”4 It is interesting to note the reactions, as recorded by O. Chandu Menon, to his proposed novel. Some of his friends, he writes in his preface to Induleka, did not think highly of the subject as announced: “one said, ‘What is the use of taking all this trouble? If things have never taken place, what is the use of writing a story about them?’” “Others again asked me . . . how I expected to make it [the novel] a success if I described only ordinary affairs of modern life without introducing any element of the supernatural.”

Kroeber, discussing his negative cases, though not with particular reference to India, remarks that evidently “a strong liking for sharp characterization, for the savor of particular events and persons, is a requisite”5 of the novel. There are, of course, other requisites, including a sufficiently perfected prose style, and some of the factors involved in the development of the novel are institutional. But if those stressed here are indeed requisites, it would seem that some considerable degree of reorientation in the Indian world view would have had to precede or accompany the appearance of the novel in that country. Certain statements made by Priyaranjan Sen in his article, Influence of Western Literature in the Development of the Bengali Novel, have relevance to this question. He is discussing the efforts of Bhudeb Mukherjee (1825–1894) and others to perpetuate the Sanskrit tradition in literature and to make use of old models in the writing of fiction. Bhudeb Mukherjee, he says, “defends the use of hyperbole so prevalent in . . . classical literature, because it contributes to the sense of wonder or the Adbhut ras: those who are simple by nature open themselves up to wonder at the things of the universe; hence our Purānas [legendary tales] which reflect our national spirit which is simple and pure are naturally full of hyperbole. The heroes and heroines of such Purānas are not tied to space and time, are not creatures of flesh and blood; but if you dive deep, if you seek the underlying significance, you will no more complain against the conception of such characters.”6 Seeking to explain why these efforts failed, Sen writes: “The pedantic and stilted style of most of these books went against them; there was no recognition of the fact that man as man deserved some notice from the novelist, that interest in humanity had grown up; and mythical personages pictured in Sanskrit tradition were all of noble birth—superior to, and therefore far removed from, the status and circumstances of the majority of the reading public.”7 Elsewhere, Sen notes that “new ways of viewing nature, man and God”8 can be seen in Bengali literature. A systematic study of culture contact and culture change, with Indian world view as the focus, should advance our knowledge of acculturation processes. Literature, including fiction, provides a major source of material for such a study.

If we accept Duncan’s theses that “Great literature is the conscious exploration through the imagination of the possibilities of human action in society,”9 and that “Men of letters rise to power through their ability to create symbolic roles which give expressive form to the desires, beliefs, and values of those acting out such roles in various phases of social action,”10 it is obvious that to students of Indian society and culture, Indian literature offers an important source of materials, materials of a character scarcely to be obtained from other sources no matter how refined the methods of approach. Of all literature, narrative prose fiction is, I believe, of particular value because its forms allow almost unlimited freedom. To be sure, the use of such materials, because of their symbolic character, is not without difficulty. As Wellek and Warren point out, there is a danger “of taking the novel seriously in the wrong way, that is, as a document or case history, as . . . a confession, a true story, a history of a life and its times. Literature must . . . of course, stand in recognizable relation to life, but the relations are very various: the life can be heightened or burlesqued or antithesized; it is in any case a selection, of a specifically purposive sort, from life. We have to have a knowledge independent of literature in order to know what the relation of a specific work to ‘life’ may be.”11

At the level of what may be termed descriptive ethnography, the difficulties of using this material are at a minimum. There seems no reason to suppose that the zemindar’s establishment, to take a concrete example, described by Bankim Chandra Chatterji with a wealth of detail in The Poison Tree (pp. 27–44) is not a faithful representation; or that the village school of which we are given a glimpse in Taraknath Ganguli’s Svarnalata (pp. 124–127) is not closely patterned upon actuality. Similarly passages describing food, costume, and various other items of material culture, as well as play and pastimes, ceremony and ritual, to give other examples, can be accepted as factually true, if often incomplete. Using the language itself, the words and phrases of the novels and short stories, one could make a study of expressions of endearment or terms of vituperation which would probably correspond closely to ordinary usage. Distortion of reality would seem to serve no useful purpose; on the contrary, verisimilitude in matters of detail heightens the novelist’s effect. Descriptions by a trained ethnographer dealing with these subjects would no doubt tell us more; but, for very many parts of India, a country with great local variation, we do not have such descriptions, nor shall we ever have them for the nineteenth century, when the two novels just referred to were written, and in many cases we search in vain sources of other types for comparable information.

The novels and short stories on the accompanying list vary greatly in this respect and as a whole are not so rich in this type of material as we might wish. Of those especially noteworthy for what might be called “ethno­graphical” realism12 one of the best is the novel of Lal Behari Day, Bengal Village Life, the prize entry in a competition for the best novel depicting Bengal village life. By and large, although there are many exceptions, notably Venu Chitale’s In Transit, the nineteenth century novels, and those written during the first twenty-five or thirty years of this century may be mined for this type of material more profitably than those of more recent date.

In investigating institutions, interpersonal relations, attitudes and values, fiction is also of great value, but the novels and short stories must be used with caution, and it is often necessary to look behind the manifest content. The distortion may be conscious and purposive or it may be unconscious; and the reasons for this distortion, if we can discover them, help us to understand Indian society and culture, even though at the present time we can in many instances do no more than formulate hypotheses. In some cases we may be able to discern more than the author intended in his presentation. The student of the joint family, for example, should not overlook the numerous descriptions of this institution in fiction; in reading one of the best of these, Sarat Chandra Chatterji’s The Deliverance, it is well to remember that the writer, who deals with this institution in several of his short stories,13 wishes to emphasize the necessity, if the joint family is to survive, of subordinating personal interests to those of the group, and to do this he makes use of a dramatic, and it would seem, highly improbable dénouement. The knowledge that The Home and the World is, as Jadunath Sarkar has pointed out,14 Tagore’s “reply to Aurobindo Ghose,” contributes to our fuller understanding of the novel and prevents us from taking the novel too literally.

A passage in Godan (p. 231) by Prem Chand, illustrates certain aspects of the interrelations between members of different castes and gives dramatic expression to the attitudes that lie at the base of these interrelationships. The peasant, Hori, has borrowed money from a Brahman of his village, and now after some time, the sum plus interest is greater than he can pay. Gobar, Hori’s son, knows that the interest charges are greater than the law allows, and tries to persuade his father to pay less than the Brahman claims as his due. He is openly scornful of the Brahman’s demands to receive the entire sum. The Brahman is speaking: ‘“Make no mistake about it son. I’m a Brahmin. You won’t live in peace by devouring my money. All right, I forego the seventy also. I won’t go to court either. But I’m a Brahmin and I know how to get back my money. You’ll come to my door and offer me the money on bended knees.”

‘Gobar was unperturbed. But a storm raged in Hori’s mind. Had it been a Thakur’s or a Bania’s money it would not have mattered. But a Brahmin’s money!

‘God keep him from a Brahmin’s wrath! They said if a Brahmin’s wrath visited a person, not a single member of the family survived.’

This passage as it stands is a bit of ethnography which adds to my knowledge of the caste system, with particular reference to the importance, in the system, of power as a focus of evaluation. The theme appears again in The Brahman’s Curse, one of the stories in S. B. Banerjea’s Tales of Bengal. Also of interest to the student of caste are some remarks addressed to his reader by the author of Induleka (p. 76) prior to introducing a Nambudiri character: “It is necessary for me to describe in this and succeeding chapters a fickle-minded and libidinous Nambudiripad. There is, however, no class of men in Malabar for whom I entertain greater respect than I do for the Nambudiris. I am acquainted with several who are distinguished for their intellect and ability, and I am proud to reckon some of them among my intimate friends. But in every caste we see shrewdness and stupidity, wisdom and folly, side by side, and the caste of Nambudiris is no exception to the rule . . . I am confident that the intelligent and impartial reader will fully and freely absolve me from any intention of maliciously exposing to contempt and derision a section of the community which is so generally regarded with veneration and honour as are the Nambudiripads and Nambudiris in Malabar.” What interests me here, in contrast to the passage from Godan, is not the attitudes expressed; the fact that O. Chandu Menon, a Nayar, felt it necessary or desirable to make these statements tells me something about Malabar society in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and the relations between the two castes.

It would be worthwhile, I believe, to make a study of the Indian woman in fiction. In her roles as mother, wife, and sister, she figures very largely in these novels and short stories; it is my impression that she appears less frequently as daughter. As we observe with the mind’s eye this procession of devoted, submissive, faithful, loyal, self­sacrificing women, the question arises, are these characters intended as realistic portrayals? There is a certain amount of evidence to suggest that this is indeed the case, particularly with reference to the woman as mother. Bankim Chandra Chatterji, who in his own person frequently addresses his readers directly, writes in Krishna Kanta’s Will (p. 245): “Woman is full of forgiveness, of compassion, of love; woman is the crowning excellence of God’s creation, the shadow of the Gods. Man the Gods’ creation only. Woman is light, man is shadow.” Madan Gopal, discussing the work of Prem Chand, writes: “Woman is the pivotal point, the sheet-anchor of a happy domestic life—the only foundation of a stable social order. She is the bedrock of society. Far from being the equal of man, she is his superior. Her responsibilities are truly gigantic, because she holds the privileged position of mother.

“Prem Chand always saw the mother in woman, for in her capacity of a mother she is capable of great self-denial and self-sacrifice . . .”15 And again, “All these noble qualities of self-denial, self-sacrifice, self-control, and the capacity to rise to super-human heights when occasion demands, are typical of the Indian woman. When she finds her husband in trouble, she would sacrifice her all. And, for this reason, Premchand had nothing but praise for her.”16 Ela Sen, in her foreword to Darkening Days, pays her tribute to Indian womanhood: “Out of the ghastly panorama there emerged one beauty—motherhood . . . untiring energy, undaunted love and greatness characterized these simple peasant women who had become destitute of all wordly possessions.” (p. 17) “The gaunt and spectral mother . . . epitomized the spirit of Bengal’s women—undaunted and alive in the midst of death—-pure as a flame amongst garbage.” (p. 18)

Unless we are to assume that these qualities are in fact characteristic of Indian women, that the great demands made upon them from an early age by society, do or did produce women possessing the virtues attributed to them—and, remembering particularly Ramabai Ranade’s auto­biography, I am not inclined to rule this out as a possibility—we should seek to discover why women in certain roles must be so highly idealized. It seems clear that in the case of woman as wife we are dealing with a literary tradition: Sita, Savitri, Sakuntala, serve as models, and at the vernacular level, in Bengal, for example, Behula, Malanchamala, and various others.17 A careful and detailed examination of the material may reveal some significant regional variations in both modem and traditional literatures in this respect. For Bengal, at any rate, there is literary continuity. What is the reason for this persistence? It is not my intention to attempt an answer, but there may be some connection with the ambivalence towards women observable in other areas of the culture.

At any rate, these women exemplify the ideal, and thus express the society’s values. Further, they serve as models and as such exert an influence on living men and women. K. C. S. in his introduction to Sarat Chandra Chatterji’s novel, Srikanta, says of one of the female characters, “the hold that Annada had, and probably still has, on the imagination of Bengal’s youth . . . can hardly be over­estimated.” We note, too, that women occupying certain statuses are not idealized to the same extent. The husband’s sister, and the husband’s brother’s wife are sometimes permitted to appear in an unfavorable light; the step­mother and mother-in-law are frequently malicious and cruel. The widow, when the author is a propagandist for social reform, is often virtuous and long-suffering, but there is another widow, particularly in the early years of our period, the temptress and evil-doer, who seems to owe much to the traditional attitudes towards her as a creature of ill-omen and a cause of anxiety.

There is much material for a study of the Indian peasant in fiction. How realistic and true to life are the pictures presented seems to be open to question. There appear to be several, not incompatible, stereotypes of the peasant which might well affect perception and result in selection in presentation. One of them is delineated in passages from Tagore’s Glimpses of Bengal: “I feel a great tenderness for the peasant folk—our ryots—big, helpless, infantile children of Providence, who must have food brought to their very lips, or they are undone. When the breasts of Mother Earth dry up, they are at a loss what to do, and can only cry. But no sooner is their hunger satisfied then they forget all their past sufferings.” (pp. 102–3) “Some­times one or other of our simple, devoted, old ryots comes in to see me—and their worshipful homage is so unaffected! How much greater than I are they in the beautiful sincerity of their reverence . . . A meek and radiantly simple soul shines through their worn and wrinkled, old bodies. Little children are merely simple, they have not the unquestioning, unwavering devotion of these.” (p. 104) The letters, extracts from which compose these Glimpses, were written while Tagore was living and travelling in the rural districts of Bengal during the years 1885–95. What, if any, were the antecedents of Tagore’s peasant, it would be interesting to know. Thompson, mentioning his “enthusiasm for the peasant,” comments, “In a general way, he must have been aware of Tolstoy’s teaching, which was permeating the world; but there was little conscious borrowing, only unconscious kinship of mind . . .”18 I think we can assume that many following Tagore saw with his eyes. More than fifty years later Ela Sen, for example, in the introduction to her Darkening Days speaks of “simple, trusting peasant hearts.”

Closely related is the villager who exemplifies India’s traditional virtues and preserves a way of life no longer to be observed in towns and cities: “A few at least of India’s men and women still know the Truth and worship it. These are the real and genuine Indians who live in the poor little villages and the humble towns, and earn a meagre but enjoyable living by tilling its soil. These you may still find gathered on the banks of India’s holy waters, greeting the bright sun at dawn with sweet Rig-Vedic hymns, or you may see them crowding the corridors of their temples when, their day’s task finished, they go to offer formal prayers to the Deity whose name has been on their lips all day.”19 This peasant seems to be connected with a kind of primitivism, a desire for the simple life, and a belief in Ram Raj as India’s former condition and true goal. We are not surprised to find that the way of life of the city dweller is sometimes, as in Murugan the Tiller, by K. S. Venkataramani, contrasted with this idyllic existence. A wise and saintly character in Bhabani Bhattacharya’s novel, So Many Hungers! (p. 30) says, “I am proud of my people. They are not bright and knowing and—civilized!—like you citybreds, but they are good people. Centuries of brute hardship and strain have not destroyed their faith in human values.” The views attributed to Prem Chand by Gopal are shared by others: “Premchand thought that the middle class in India, the result of the impact of the West, was thoroughly corrupt, that it depended for its safety upon foreign bayonets and that its standards of moral and social values were entirely false, enveloped in artificiality and show. Against the manifold ills of this social order and its mainstay, the modern educational system, Premchand carries on a crusade.”20 A component element in this picture of the peasant is the idea that it is the village and its people which persist. A passage towards the end of Conflict (pp. 154—5), by Aamir Ali, expresses this: “The real people of India, the real life of India. Shankar saw that against the background of centuries and centuries: holding fast together; indestructible. And he felt proud to belong to such a people . . .”

Another peasant, who may be called the man with the hoe, makes his appearance early, and is still to be met with in fiction. We may trace him to the stereotype—which as in the other types fiction has no doubt done much to create and perpetuate—of the peasant bowed with the weight of centuries, over-burdened, poverty-stricken, victimized by landlords and money-lenders, helpless in the face of social convention, a prey to superstition, doomed to ultimate defeat by the forces arrayed against him.

Although I have noted these three stereotypes separately, they might better be considered as three aspects of a single stereotype. The relative emphasis placed on one or other of these aspects in fiction would probably be found to vary with the general theme of the author, and according, in some degree, to the period in which the work was written.

Novels and short stories furnish material for a study of the beliefs and ideas regarding the Indian character held by the people themselves. These ideas, closely related to the values and goals of the group as a whole, are often directly expressed in fiction. One example may be found in Padmini (p. 197), an historical novel by T. Ramakrishnan. A wise old man of Chingleput is contrasting the British in the person of Francis Day with the Indians: “As for the English, I see from the reports I hear of the Englishman who visited your court recently, about his proud bearing and dignified demeanour, that they are proud too, and that he belongs to a nation whose pride and manliness and courage and chivalry will prevent them from mingling freely with us who possess other virtues no less important. Dogged stubbornness, endurance, an intense desire to help the weak against the strong, and to grant equality of political rights to those who are not as physically great as themselves, these masculine virtues usually characterize such nations. On the other hand, we possess the softer virtues of humility, mildness, forbearance, kindness, and mercy to all living things on earth. These virtues of a sentimental kind characterize our race. We have an individuality and an exclusiveness, the result, of course, of our deep religious convictions, which preclude us from commingling with other races.”

Related ideas are expressed in The Prince of Destiny, by Sarath Kumar Ghosh (p. 488). It is written with reference to the hero that “In yielding up the resentment he was Eastern; in the thought of the universal peace, universal goodwill, and the brotherhood of man . . . he was Eastern. Yes, even if the East ever possessed the greater arms, it would make for peace and goodwill and brotherhood by rebuking the disturber, the usurper, and the international robber. The East only sought to live and let live.” Later on, addressing his people, the hero says: “. . . India shall impose her will upon the world—peace. She will range herself on the side of the weak ones of the earth, and check the disturbers of peace, the pirates and marauders among nations.” (p. 597)

Mulk Raj Anand in Untouchable (pp. 124–5) puts into the mouth of a poet a speech describing other aspects of the Indian character: “It is India’s genius to accept all things . . . Right in the tradition of those who accepted the world and produced the baroque exhuberance of Indian architecture and sculpture, with its profound sense of form, its solidity and its mass, we will accept and work the machine. But we will do so consciously. We can see through the idiocy of these Europeans who deified money . . . we can steer clear of the pitfalls, because we have the advantage of a race-consciousness six thousand years old, a race-consciousness which accepted all the visible and invisible values. We know life. We know its secret flow. We have danced to its rhythms. We have loved it, not sentimentally through personal feelings, but pervasively, stretching ourselves outwards so far, oh, so far, that life seemed to have no limits, that miracles seemed possible . . . We cannot go wrong. Our enslavers muddle through things. We can see things clearly. We will go the whole hog with regard to machines while they nervously fumble their way with the steam-engine. And we will keep our heads through it all. We will not become slaves to gold. We can be trusted to see life steadily and see it whole.”

A view of the Indian people from another angle, perhaps not now, or not ever, to the forefront in their own minds, is quite clearly a product of political circumstances, but it reflects also the Indians as viewed by the British. In The Home and The World (p. 41) Tagore attributes this view to Nikhil, a character who seems to come close to representing Tagore’s own opinions: “Where our minds are free we find ourselves lost. Our moribund vitality must have for its rider either some fantasy, or someone in authority, or a sanction from the pundits, in order to make it move. So long as we are impervious to truth and have to be moved by some hypnotic stimulus, we must know that we lack the capacity for self-government. Whatever may be our condition, we shall either need some imaginary ghost or some actual medicine-man to terrorise over us.” Tagore has developed this theme in one of the allegorical sketches included in The Parrot’s Training and Other Stories.

There is also a regional dimension to what we may think of as national character viewed from the inside. Mohan Singh, for example, gives us a conception of the Punjabi character which is probably not idiosyncratic (cf. p. 36). The general subject might be further pursued by means of a study of fictional characters.

Many of the ideas which appear to be now firmly established probably grew up as part of the reaction to British contact. The extent to which this is the case, and how much if anything they owe to British and European writers might well be investigated. At any rate, the beliefs and ideas held by Indians regarding their own character are of considerable importance from more than one angle; they are central, for example, to a study of the Indian world view, and to an understanding of political developments, both past and present.

Political events and issues of our hundred year period are reflected in various ways, both direct and indirect, in the literature. The terrorist movement in Bengal in the early years of this century, the civil disobedience campaigns of the Indian National Congress, Partition and its aftermath, are drawn upon for plot and character by many of the novelists and short-story writers. To the student of Indian politics, however, fiction is chiefly valuable as revealing attitudes towards events and towards political theories and personalities.

The historical novels can perhaps most fruitfully be considered in this connection. Borrowed from the West, the genre had a vogue in India during the first fifty years or so of our period, but appears to have lost favor in more recent years. Even with such models as Scott and others provided, and at least some source materials, Indian authors were not, if we can judge from the examples available to the English reader, primarily interested in creating a realistic picture of the people and society of a bygone day. The historical novel seems to be an offshoot of the growth of nationalism, an expression of a newly-awakened pride in India’s past glories, a means of arousing and fostering the desire for self-government. There was some risk in using the Mutiny for this purpose, but the struggles of the Hindus against the Muslims did not meet with the same objection. Hence the prominence of Sivaji and Pratap Singh in literature. Thompson says of Tagore’s Katha, stories (in verse) “chiefly of Buddhist times and the Sikh and Maratha efforts and the Rajput struggle to keep independence,” that they “must be regarded as a very effective part of his political propaganda.”21 That fiction, and other forms of literature, deserve serious study by those concerned with the development of political thought and activity in India is indicated by a statement of Guha-Thakurta: “The political events that preceded the Svadeśī movement would in themselves have been wholly insufficient to bring about the new nationalistic consciousness if they had not been reinforced by a growing tendency towards the literary expression of patriotic ideals and sentiments.”22

The novel throughout its history in India has served the purposes of social as well as political reform; so also the short story. J. C. Ghosh, quoting the English preface to the first edition of Piari Chand Mitra’s novel, states that it “is a cautionary tale written with the primary object of showing ‘the pernicious effects of allowing children to be improperly brought, up.’”23 Bankim Chandra Chatterji, though not a reformer in the ordinary sense of the word—he has been characterized as a “pugnacious controversialist in defense of Hindu culture”24—was critical of “the fraility and defects of his own countrymen”25 and in various ways his views are reflected in his work.26 Some writers had a more limited objective. Not all are as explicit in this respect as O. Chandu Menon, who writes in the introduction to Induleka: “My narrative of the love and courtship of Madhavan is intended to show to the young ladies of Malabar how happy they can be if they have the freedom to choose their partners, and how supremely enjoyable a thing it would be for a young educated lady, at a time when she attains a marriageable age, to observe, to study, to admire and love a well-educated, handsome young man of unblemished moral character like Madhavan, who becomes first her companion and friend, gets closer and closer in friendship, and finally falls in love with her, adoring her as the source of all his happiness in this world, as the person without whom he does not care to live, and for whose happiness he would sacrifice everything in his power. Alliances arising out of such pure, sweet, reciprocal love only deserve to be called marriages, and it is my earnest desire that this should be the way in which the Nair ladies, who already enjoy much greater freedom in respect of matrimony than other Hindu women, should take their husbands.” Other writers attack the dowry system, the prohibition of the marriage of widows, child marriage, the general position of women in Hindu society. A systematic survey of the material would, I believe, reveal less concern with reforms in the caste system than might be expected. It is my impression that, as we might predict, during the last twenty years or so political rather than social aims have predominated. The remarks made by Gopal concerning Prem Chand would apply equally well to many others: “Premchand was a writer with a purpose and wanted to train the masses for a struggle. To that end his works abound in heroes and patriots, inspired by noble ideals, loving, truthful, sacrificing, and always upholding the cause of the oppressed.”27 Krishan Chandar, according to Mohamed Sadiq, “feels that he has a mission as a short story writer—to show up the capitalist and the ruling classes in all their brutality and bestiality.”28

The strong didactic tone characteristic of much of Indian fiction has been noted by Anand and Iqbal, and in their discussion of the Indian short story they trace it to the ancient literary tradition of India: the stories, according to these authors, “still retain a significant, if increasingly tenuous link with the old fables and folk narratives, which accounts for their obsessive didactic strain.”29 It appears probable that other factors are involved and that in the early years at any rate Indian authors were influenced by Victorian moralistic works, and also that consideration should be given to the general spirit of the times: an influential section of the population had come, largely as a result of contact with the West, to be sharply critical of many Indian institutions, to press in various ways the need for reform; new and revolutionary ideas could be presented in palatable form in the novels and short stories.

The discussion so far has been concerned with descriptive content, but investigation of certain technical aspects of fiction might also prove rewarding. With style we cannot be concerned. A number of the works available in English are translations, and very few of the Indian novelists who wrote originally in English have had sufficient control over the language to bend it to their purposes; the outstanding exception is R. K. Narayan who has developed a style almost perfectly coordinated with his subject matter. But a study of characterization might prove suggestive and lead to the formulation of useful hypotheses. Is there anything regarding the mode of characterization that can be said to be typical of Indian fiction generally, which can distinguish it from other literatures? On the basis of what is known concerning acculturation we might expect to find some distinctive features. Anand and Iqbal, discussing the Indian short story, have perhaps put a finger on such a trait: “The significant feature of the Western short story is the subtle interplay, indeed interpenetration, of situation and character which produces the climax and leads to the ultimate dénouement. But in most Indian stories these two elements of the theme are very sharply differentiated; there is little interplay, and what we witness is a series of collisions which seem to set up an unresolved crisis . . . It may well be that the background of life with which they [the Indian writers] have to deal does not lend itself to the same kind of formal treatment as the material with which the European writers are concerned.”30 It is my impression that these remarks apply equally well to the novel, in which the characters often have a static quality, do not develop, and are mere instruments in the plot. If this should prove, on analysis, to be typically the case, it would be worthwhile to consider the differences in the “background of life” which make it difficult, or undesirable, or impossible for Indians to copy their models in this respect.

A part, perhaps a large part, of the “background” of the European writers is the idea, very old in Western thought, that character is destiny, that what a man is as an individual, and what he does, what happens to him, are closely linked. The absence of such assumptions in Indian thought may partially account for the characteristic features noted by Anand and Iqbal. In Western fiction char­acter is largely delineated by means of incident. Wellek and Warren, observing the close relationship between plot and characterization, quote Henry James, who asks in The Art of Fiction, “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?”31 If these two are conceived as more or less unrelated, characterization becomes a technical problem. I am inclined to consider it a possibility that the lack of a close interrelationship in Indian conceptualization may be one reason for the cardboard quality of the characters in so many of the novels and short stories.

There is another possibility. It was suggested earlier in this paper that a lack of interest in human nature and individual character may have hindered the development of the novel in India, and perhaps the interest is still not very great. A character in fiction is real, writes Forster, “when the novelist knows everything about it. He may not choose to tell us all he knows . . . But he will give us the feeling that though the character has not been explained, it is explicable . . .”32 With a few exceptions, it must be said of Indian novelists and short story-writers in general, as Sayyid Abdul Latif said of Urdu writers: “None of them . . . reveals a deep and discriminating study of human nature.” He adds that “their observations are necessarily limited by their inadequate knowledge and perception.”33

Certain sociological factors may be relevant to a consideration of the general problem. The individual in Indian society is to a large extent subordinated to the group and does not assume the significance granted to him in the West. In this connection some remarks by B. K. Mallik are of interest: “To the Hindu the individual as bare individual never appealed apart from his relationships. He understood him, if at all, as only a member or constituent of a society or group, or organization. To him the essence of individuality lay in the unity which the multiple individuals constituting a group or society are bound to profess. If in spite of all that he did not succeed in getting rid of him altogether, his very last act was to give him the chance of absorption or immolation in the divine absolute as if that consummation would appease the most baffling of all aspirations, individuality . . .”34 Also, role-expectations are highly specific and institutionalized to a degree not found in the West. It would seem to follow that the individual is viewed primarily as a player of roles and that his distinctive personal characteristics receive less attention than the manner in which he meets the expectations of his roles as defined by the society. There is a strong tendency to attribute qualities to the individual by virtue of the status which he occupies, and his experiences are in many cases capable of explanation in terms of his status. In Srikanta, by Sarat Chandra Chatterji, the hero on one occasion remains for some time alone at night in the cremation grounds, and later gives an account of his experiences to a company of people: “After I had finished no one spoke for some time: there was silence throughout the tent. At length the elderly gentleman heaved a deep sigh, and placing a hand on my shoulder, said with impressive slowness, ‘Babu-ji, you have been able to return with your life; that is because you are a true Brahmin; nobody else could have done it . . . I touch the feet of your forefathers a thousand million times; it is their spiritual merit that saved you last night.’ And in his emotion he put his hand on my feet.” (p. 117) Power of a particular kind, we know from older literary sources, accrued to the individual who fulfilled his role-expectations perfectly and perhaps we are not too fanciful if we discern in the above passage some hint or reflection or extension of this idea; at any rate, what impresses the old man is not the bravery or courage of Srikanta as an individual.

The nature, furthermore, of interpersonal relations is determined to an extent greater than in the West by the statuses occupied by the participants. The body of fiction contains many examples of this with reference to caste and the family. One of the most striking is to be found in Ratanbai, by S. M. Nikambé: a young girl, married only a short time before, is brought, a widow, to the home of her deceased husband’s brother; in her position as wife she had been an object of consideration and made much of by all; now she is reviled, and for a time not even asked to enter the house. An elderly member of the household says to the widow’s brother-in-law, “The wretch has swallowed up our Dinu! Why did she marry him? To eat him up this way! Why hast thou brought this ill-luck into the house? She will surely swallow someone here. Our Dinu is gone and she is nothing to us now.” (p. 85) Later on, when another death in the family occurs, this woman says to the widow, “You have brought this ill-luck, and you have been the cause of our misery.” (p. 82)

In another novel, The Dark Dancer, by Balachandra Rajan, the hero reflects upon his own background, “where the map of one’s life was drawn even before one’s first cry”, as contrasted with that of his English friend: “All the emotions and responsibilities were systematically charted—to the village, to the government, to the complex yet precise hierarchy of the joint family, the relation of man to society, man to man, even the relation of a man to his wife, so that all that remained for private definition was the deep, personal mystery of a man’s relation to God. And even that mystery was set in a ceremony and process rigidly prescribed to the minutest detail, so that, while the discovery was one’s own, the only possible way was that of all men.” (p. 162)

A clue to related psychological factors is perhaps to be found in certain personality characteristics of Indians, and some statements of Carstairs in a recent book are at least worth bearing in mind. In a brief statement concerning the respects in which the subjects of his study appeared to him to resemble each other and to differ from his “conception of the Western norm,” he noted that, “They displayed an apparent lack of empathy with regard to each other’s feelings; and their fellows’ motives seemed to them ever arbitrary, inscrutable and suspect . . . Interpersonal relations tended to be on a superficial level . . .” He adds that, “In contrast to this, they acted with the greatest self-assurance when observing the formalities of an elaborate social etiquette, or when impersonally executing the duties associated with their respective caste roles . . .”35

Carstairs’ study was localized, and the number of his subjects was small; he himself points out that his generalizations may or may not be found to hold for India as a whole. But it might also be noted in connection with our problem that Taylor has remarked upon a lack of concern with personal qualities in Hinduism, the system which establishes the relationship of man with god. “Hinduism,” he says, “has little place in its system for personal qualities which cannot be reduced to conceptual terms, or for personal relations that cannot be interpreted in ceremonial forms. It has taken the alternative, and has developed its religious attitudes in abstract conceptual, and in concrete ceremonial, forms. It has related religion in the most intimate manner to philosophical thought on the one hand, and to a type of social organization on the other. This is paralleled by an emphasis on right knowledge and on correct action as alternative methods of obtaining salvation. The channelings of religious interests in these two forms is made possible by the relative isolation of intangible personal qualities from the field of spiritually significant things.”36

The relationship between national character and literature must be, if any, indirect and very complex, and in the present state of our knowledge of Indian character and personality it is daring even to speculate. But it may be possible one day to discover the reasons why Mrs. Gertrude Emerson Sen’s plea for a “penetrating psychological analysis [in fiction] of true Indian types”37 has so far gone unanswered.

Whatever the main focus of our interest in Indian fiction, the question arises as to how representative is the body of material available in English. The accompanying list has been compiled, not very systematically, over a period of years. While it is not exhaustive, I believe that it is a fair sample of fiction written originally in English or translated into English. The volume of material in the various vernaculars is of course very much greater. Any hypotheses formulated on the basis of this type of material must be tested by other methods of study, but the worth of these literary sources, particularly for certain of the purposes which I have tried to indicate, depends on whether or not we can fairly assume that there are not substantial differences between the documents available in English and those in the vernacular languages. Some Indian critics hold that writers of fiction in English are to be distinguished from those who write in the vernaculars. An editorial in Quest offers an explanation for the differences perceived: “There is a growing feeling among our writers that Indo-Anglican literature, especially fiction, continues to achieve a succes d’estime which hides its inevitable sophistication of the reality of Indian life. What is wrong with these overestimated novelists is not that they do not know the craft—in fact, they know more of it than do their vernacular counterparts—but that they receive experience on the surface, with the romantic expectation of turning it into a commodity acceptable to Western readers hungry for an exotic revelation of the East.”36 If this is true, we must indeed handle our material cautiously. But I believe that there is reason to doubt the general applicability of this statement. A few writers must be considered exceptions, but for the most part I do not see marked differences between the works on the list published in translation, which are approximately one-fourth of the total, and those written in English. The problem, however, remains, and deserves further attention by those who can utilize sources in one or more of the vernaculars.

A question also exists with regard to regional differences. Although all of India shares a common literary tradition there are variations at the vernacular level which correspond more or less closely to the linguistic areas. We should, therefore, not be surprised to find that Marathi fiction, to take one example, had some features which distinguished it from that in other vernaculars. Also, the general social and cultural heritage is not identical for all parts of India. Furthermore, it is not likely that writers of fiction in one vernacular exerted much influence on those of another since the languages are mutually unintelligible, and the works of very few writers in one have been translated into others; contact has been generally, if at all, through the medium of English.

Indian critics have in some cases considered it possible to discern and describe characteristic features of particular vernacular literatures. Mohan Singh, for example, writes of his own Punjabi language and literature: “Panjabi is the composite language of a composite people, the basis of whose structure is agricultural, and the superstructure military. Both the rustic and the soldier are as free of heart as of speech; their one object is self-expression, self-assertion; nothing is for them too sacrosanct, too beautiful and delicate, too useful or valuable to be rough-handled, changed, exploited; for both, freedom and immediate full utility are the first loves and the last; they both keep to or find their level, and are anxious to labour, to strike and then seek escape, comfort and consolation in song, dance, drink, sexual enjoyment, sallies of wit and humour and sarcasm, and generally in excess. When they give they give generously, of money, of loyalty and friendship, of blood and bone; when they take they wrest mercilessly. These characteristics of the Panjab Jat, Rajput, Ahir and Gujjar, one finds amply evidenced in literary work by Jats themselves, in folk songs, in tribal and national wars recorded in history, in the witness of oral tradition. And these characteristics of men and women have their corresponding equivalents in the speech they utter, the literature they compose or pen.”38 Was it perhaps these characteristics which impressed a non-Punjabi, K. Nagarajan, who wrote of Mulk Raj Anand, “He sees life in the raw and exposes it mercilessly, flesh, wounds, blood and all . . . shedding sentimentalism, [he] writes with a fine touch of scorn of the social and economic inequalities which to him make a mockery of much of Indian life . . .”?39

There may be subtle differences which would reveal distinctive aspects of the attitudes towards life of the writers and the people for whom the books were written. Edward Thompson, who knew Bengali literature very well, wrote in an article on Some Vernacular Characteristics of Bengali Literature,40 that “irony is so prevalent in Bengali literature that it may almost be called the differentia of the literature. You often get whole books in which almost every sentence has a veiled meaning.” Gangadhar Gadgil, the Marathi short-story writer, tells me that Gujaratis comment on the amount of humor in Marathi fiction.

Unfortunately, although all but one, Gujarati, of the major vernacular literatures of India are represented on the accompanying list by authors who wrote originally in English or whose works have been translated, the distribution is very uneven. Bengali writers form the largest single group, comprising approximately one-third of the total. This is probably to be expected, and is connected with the growth of Calcutta as the intellectual capital of India. For the other literatures, the sample is inadequate for comparative purposes.

In this list, fiction has been given a fairly wide meaning. A few sketches or volumes of sketches have been included which do not, strictly speaking, fall into the category of either the novel or the short story. The autobiographies number forty-five, but the line between fiction and autobiography is actually not easy to draw. Several of the works classed as novels clearly are or appear to be autobiographical; where either is the case it is indicated in the notes so far as the information permits. Some selection has been exercised in regard to the autobiographical material. A good deal of this type of literature is of interest mainly to students of Indian politics, and items of this sort which appear in the bibliography on Government and Politics of India and Pakistan41 prepared by Patrick Wilson are omitted. I have, however, listed certain works of a similar nature which are not included in Wilson’s bibliography. Although the discussion has been confined to fiction, in many respects autobiography can be put to similar use, and these personal documents, even when they are quite impersonal records, if we penetrate deeply, show us the ways in which individuals reacted to experience and viewed the life of their times.42


  1. The title of the English translation is The Spoilt Child. 

  2. Cf. J. C. Ghosh, Bengali Literature, London: Oxford University Press, 1948, Chapter IV. 

  3. The article is reprinted in A. L. Kroeber, The Nature of Culture, The University of Chicago Press [1952], p. 413. 

  4. S. K. De, History of Bengali Literature in the Nineteenth Century. 1800–1825. University of Calcutta Press, 1919, pp. 445–446. 

  5. Kroeber, p. 415. 

  6. The article is published in the Journal of the Department of Letters, Vol. XXII, University of Calcutta, Calcutta University Press, 1932, pp. 1–76; p. 14. 

  7. Op. cit., p. 15. 

  8. Priyaranjan Sen, Western Influence in Bengali Literature, University of Calcutta, 1932, p. 385. 

  9. Hugh Dalziel Duncan, Language and Literature in Society, A Sociological Essay on Theory and Method in the Interpretation of Linguistic Symbols, With a Bibliographical Guide to the Sociology of Literature. The University of Chicago Press [1953], p. 1. 

  10. Duncan, p. 2. 

  11. René Wellek and Austin Warren, Theory of Literature, New York: Harcourt, Brace [1949], p. 219. 

  12. I have borrowed this term from D. S. Mirsky, A History of Russian Literature, Comprising A History of Russian Literature and Contemporary Russian Literature, Edited and abridged by Francis J. Whitfield. New York: Knopf, 1949, p. 233. 

  13. Cf. S. C. Sen Gupta, Sarat Chandra: Man and Artist. Calcutta, Saraswaty Library £1945], Chapter III. 

  14. In the Modern Review, Vol. XXVI, November, 1919. 

  15. Madan Gopal, Premchand, Lahore: The Bookabode [1944],p.89. 

  16. Gopal, p. 41. 

  17. For Behula cf. the story of Manasa-Mangala in Dinesh Chandra Sen, History of the Bengali Language and Literature, Calcutta: Published by the University, 1911, pp. 257–276. For Malanchamala cf. Dinesh Chandra Sen, Folk Literature of Bengal, Published by the University of Calcutta, 1920, pp. 267–322. Sen, commenting on the tale, writes: “Here in this land women have always evinced a high spirit of sacrifice at the altar of domestic love, and their self-immolation on the funeral pyre of their husbands and practice of austere Brahmacharya, have evoked wonder of all unprejudiced minds. In this country Mālañchamālā is no day-dream of poets, no idealistic or unrealistic mental phantom ‘without human interest’, simply because the human being in this case happens to possess a super-human strength of soul.” (p. 835) 

  18. Edward Thompson, Rabindranath Tagore, Poet and Dramatist, London [etc.] Oxford University Press, 1926, p. 157. 

  19. Mulk Raj Anand, The Hindu View of Art, with an introductory essay on Art and Reality by Eric Gill. London: George Allen and Unwin [1933], p. 218. 

  20. Gopal, p. 36. 

  21. Thompson, p. 166. 

  22. P. Guha-Thakurta, The Bengali Drama, Its Origin and Development. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1930, p. 148. Cf. pp. 149–150 for his comments on the novels of Bankim Chandra Chatterji and Romesh Chandra Dutt in this connection. 

  23. Ghosh, p. 127. 

  24. M. M. Bhattacharjee, “Bankimchandra Chatterjee,” in Great Men of India, L. F. Rushbrook Williams, ed. The Home Library Club, The Times of India—The Statesman, Associated Newspapers of Ceylon, n.d., p. 548. 

  25. Bhattacharjee, p. 548. 

  26. Cf. Jayanta Kumar Das Gupta, A Critical Study of the Life and Novels of Bankimchandra. Published by the Calcutta University, 1987. Chapter XVII. 

  27. Gopal, p. 50. 

  28. Mohamed Sadiq, Twentieth-Century Urdu Literature (A Review), Baroda: Padmaja Publications [1947], p. 81. 

  29. In their introduction to Indian Short Stories, p. 8. 

  30. Cf. introduction to Indian Short Stories, p. 8. 

  31. Wellekand Warren, p. 224. 

  32. E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel. New York: Harcourt, Brace [1954], p. 63. 

  33. Sayyid Abdul Latif, The Influence of English Literature on Urdu Literature. London: Forster Groom, 1924, p. 124. 

  34. B. K. Mallik, The Individual and the Group, An Indian Study in Conflict. London: George Allen and Unwin [1939], pp. 103–104. 

  35. G. Morris Carstairs, The Twice-Born, A study of a Community of High-Caste Hindus. London: The Hogarth Press, 1957, p. 106. 

  36. Vol. II, No. 5, April-May, 1957. 

  37. Mrs. Sen was addressing the First All-India Writers’ Conference. Cf. Indian Writers in Council, Proceedings of the First All-India Writers’ Conference (Jaipur, 1945), K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar, ed. Bombay: The International Book House, p. 77. 

  38. Mohan Singh, An Introduction to Panjabi Literature. Amritsar: Nanak Singh Pustak Mala [1951?], p. 257. 

  39. K. Nagarajan, “The Development of the Novel in India.” Art and Letters, The Journal of the Royal India and Pakistan Society, Vol. XXIII, No. 1, 1949, p. 44. 

  40. Indian Art and Letters, n.s. Vol. 1, No. 1, 1927, p. 11. 

  41. Government and Politics of India and Pakistan, 1885–1955: A Bibliography of Works in Western Languages. Compiled and edited by Patrick Wilson. Berkeley: University of California, South Asia Studies, Institute of East Asiatic Studies. 

  42. Cf. Gordon W. Allport, The Use of Personal Documents in Psychological Science. Social Science Research Council, Bulletin 49, 1942, and Louis Gottschalk, Clyde Kluckhohn, Robert Angell, The Use of Personal Documents in History, Anthropology, and Sociology. Social Science Research Council, Bulletin 58, 1945.