Revisiting Raja Rao’s fiction — an essay published in The Caravan (1 January 2015)
RAJA RAO WAS THE LAST of the canonical “founding fathers” of Indian English-language fiction to pass away. The triumvirate—which included RK Narayan and Mulk Raj Anand—were all born in the first decade of the twentieth century, and expired softly about a hundred years later. Their lives and careers bridged a century of enormous transformation in India. Wrestling the Indian experience into English, they set the stage for generations of writers who could inhabit the language without feeling out of place.
With so many South Asians now twinkling in the firmament of English letters, it’s easy to forget how new such writing was at the time. Anand’s friend George Orwell described English-language Indian literature as a “strange phenomenon” and a “cultural curiosity.” He doubted that it would manage any lasting significance. “It is difficult to believe,” Orwell wrote, “that it has a literary future.”
His position looks rather ridiculous given the successes of the last fifty years. English-language fiction has safely ensconced itself among India’s various literary traditions. It offers a deeply rutted path for younger writers to follow, bumping along. They no longer need to ask for the validation of Western publishers. The domestic market for Indian English fiction (whether highbrow or “mythological thriller”) is incomparably larger and more established than it was in Rao’s day. English is a natural medium for Indians to express their imaginations to each other, and not simply to readers in the West.
Writing nearly a century ago, Rao believed that he had to account for his use of English. It was the language of the ruling British, a tongue far removed from his native Kannada, and even further removed from the realities of rural life that initially preoccupied him. Rao’s foreword to Kanthapura (1938), his debut novel that studied the bloom of the independence movement in a south Indian village, amounts to a manifesto of sorts, a blueprint for why and how one might convert English to suit the sensibilities of the Indian writer. He argued that English could be Indianised.
“English is not really an alien language to us. It is the language of our intellectual make-up—like Sanskrit or Persian was before—but not of our emotional make-up. … We cannot write like the English. We should not. We cannot write only as Indians. We have grown to look at the large world as part of us. Our method of expression therefore has to be a dialect which will some day prove to be as distinctive and colourful as the Irish or the American. Time alone will justify it.”