The Indian Postcolonial Novel in English


© 2019 by M. Keith Booker

The Indian postcolonial novel occupies a very different position in relation to British culture than does the African postcolonial novel. For one thing, the colonial relationship between Britain and India was far longer and more complex than the relationship between Britain and Africa. For another thing, India had a rich tradition of written literature even before the arrival of British colonizers. Postcolonial Indian literature draws upon that tradition, giving it dimensions that are unavailable to most postcolonial African writers.[1] India itself is also far different from Africa, consisting as it does of a single large country with a population roughly equivalent to that of the entire African continent. But India is also a very diverse country, both culturally and linguistically. As a result, Indian literature written after India attained independence in 1947 tends to be less dominated by the colonial experience and less concerned with establishing a dialog with British literature than is postcolonial African literature. In addition, most postcolonial Indian literature is not written in the English language, though there is a significant body of Anglophone Indian literature. Despite all these differences, many of the critical and theoretical issues discussed in the previous chapter with regard to African literature (including the questions about language), and the reader of this chapter is encouraged to review that one before moving forward with this one.

India had a long and rich history of intercultural encounters even before the initial arrival of the British there. The long British encounter with India dates back to the beginning of the seventeenth century and was solidified by the establishment of permanent coastal trading outposts in India by the British East India Company[2] around the beginning of the eighteenth century, just as the Mughal Empire[3] that had ruled much of India in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was beginning to fragment. Actually, the East India Company had received its initial charter from Queen Elizabeth I all the way back in 1600. They immediately began exploring trade opportunities in India, where they had already been preceded by Dutch and Portuguese traders. As the Mughal Empire began to fall apart, the British East India Company and the French East India Company both saw opportunities to expand their power on the Indian subcontinent. Clashes between these two companies and with indigenous Indian forces in the eighteenth century eventually saw the British East India Company emerge by the second half of that century as the leading force in India, maintaining a private army there (made up mostly of India recruits trained and commanded by British officers) by the beginning of the nineteenth century that was twice the size of the standing British army and assuming a significant number of political and administrative functions in India that went well beyond trade.

By the time of the Indian War of Independence in 1857 (known in Britain at the time as the “Mutiny”), the East India Company had been the leading power in India for roughly 100 years. In this event, large numbers of Indian soldiers serving in the private armies of the East India Company rebelled against their British masters. Meanwhile, despite the fact that Indian brutality and violence during the Mutiny would become one of the favorite motifs of sensationalist British popular culture for decades to come, the British response was far from romantic or merely literary. And, despite the fact that this rebellion has come to be seen by Indian historians as a war of independence, it actually led to a solidification of British rule in India for decades to come. The armies of the East India Company put down the rebellion with overwhelming force and spectacular violence—favorite  punishments for captured rebels included hangings and beheadings, as well as strapping prisoners across the mouths of cannon, which were then fired, blowing the hapless victim to bits. Perhaps more importantly, the rebellion (and the Company’s response to the rebellion) led the British government to remove control of India from the Company and to assume direct colonial rule in 1858. Queen Victoria officially took the title of “Empress of India” in 1876. Given the circumstances under which direct British government rule in India was initiated, it should come as no surprise that that rule remained largely militaristic in nature until the end of the nineteenth century or that British rule remained highly autocratic throughout the remainder of the colonial era.

The Indian War of Independence had a profound effect on the British psyche, spurring a wave of racist hatred against Indians and inserting a huge wedge of doubt into the formerly confident British vision that their empire would likely last forever. The rebellion also exerted a powerful effect on British literature, which saw an outpouring of lurid fictional accounts of the event that became a virtual genre unto itself.[4] Indeed, India loomed large in British fiction for the next century, with this fiction often being informed by a strong sense of anxiety over Indian resistance to British rule. After all, India was a far different situation than Ireland, and the British could not have possibly hope to put down a general Indian uprising by force as they had done so many times in Ireland.[5]

It is certainly the case that anticolonial resistance in India, while momentarily put into disarray by the events of the War of Independence, would soon once again begin gathering steam. British responses to Indian resistance often remained violent. On April 13, 1919, for example, British troops under the command of Colonel Reginald Dyer opened fire on a crowd of peaceful Indian protestors, killing hundreds in what came to be known as the Jallianwallah Bagh Massacre (aka the Amritsar Massacre). Such events only increased the animosity of the general Indian population toward their British rulers and made it clear, in retrospect, that British rule was by this time doomed to be short-lived. Opposition to the British remained largely peaceful, however, largely due to the efforts of Indian resistance leader Mahatma Gandhi to keep it that way, though resistance did begin to become more violent just before World War II. By the end of that war, a Britain exhausted and depleted by the war no longer had either the will or the resources to maintain control of India. On July 18, 1947, Parliament passed the Indian Independence Act, which provided for the creation of India as an independent dominion within the British Commonwealth, while also creating Pakistan as a separate dominion, including a Western branch (what is now Pakistan) and an Eastern branch (what is now Bangladesh). The British, having long employed a “divide-and-conquer” strategy that depended on maintaining animosity between Muslims and Hindus in India, felt that it was important to establish Pakistan as a separate Muslim dominion in order to preserve the peace.

In the event, however, Britain’s hasty departure from India (Indian independence went into effect only four weeks after the Independence Act, on August 15), led to chaos and widespread violence. Over two million people were killed in the days following independence and partition, as large groups of Muslims attempted to move across India to reach Pakistan, often clashing with Hindus along the way. The Partition riots of 1947 have become an important motif in Indian and Pakistani postcolonial literature, providing the major impetus for English-language works such as Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan (1956) and Bapsi Sidhwa’s Cracking India (1988). In addition, Manohar Malgonkar’s Anglophone historical novel A Bend in the Ganges (1964) narrates the last years of British rule in India, beginning with the growing violence of Indian resistance to the British before World War II, moving through the impact of the war, and culminating in the Partition riots.

Far and away, however, the best-known English-language novel that deals with the birth of India and Pakistan is Midnight’s Children (1981), by Salman Rushdie (1947– ). Midnight’s Children is a complex, dynamic novel that attempts to capture the richness and strangeness of modern Indian history by narrating, in a magical realist mode, the last decades of British rule and the first decades of independence. Winning near-universal critical acclaim, Midnight’s Children won both the Booker Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and made Rushdie (born in Bombay to Indian Muslim parents in the last months of British rule but resident in Britain since the age of fourteen) a major figure on the British literary scene.

Rushdie’s third novel, Shame (1983), which relates the early history of Pakistan, shows much of the same energetic prose and comic inventiveness as Midnight’s Children, though Rushdie’s reputation continued to rest primarily on Midnight’s Children until the publication, in 1988, of The Satanic Verses, which triggered one of the great literary controversies of the twentieth century and sent Rushdie into hiding after a barrage of death threats from conservative Muslims (who regarded the book as blasphemous)—including an official 1989 fatwa from Iran’s then-ruler, the Ayatollah Khomeini, ordering Rushdie’s death. This event curtailed Rushdie’s output as a writer for some time, but it also made him one of the most famous writers in the world.

Both Shame and The Satanic Verses were short-listed for the Booker Prize, though neither won. Rushdie’s reputation was then further solidified in 1993, when Midnight’s Children was awarded a special “Booker of Bookers” award as the greatest of the winners of the Booker Prize in its first twenty-five years in existence. The stature of that novel was again affirmed in 2008, when it was named the greatest of the Booker Prize winners in the first 40 years of the prize. In the meantime, Rushdie’s first novel in seven years (other than the children’s novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories in 1990), The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995), was also short-listed for the Booker. By this time, Rushdie had established himself as an internationally known author who was receiving more critical attention than virtually any other living author.[6]

The fatwa against Rushdie was officially lifted in 1998, and he gradually assumed a more public life. In 2000, he moved to America, where he has lived ever since and where he now has citizenship. While serving as a Distinguished Writer in Residence, first at Emory University and now at New York University, Rushdie has continued to be productive, publishing a string of novels that includes The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999), Fury (2001), Shalimar the Clown (2005), The Enchantress of Florence (2008), Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (2015), and The Golden House (2017). All are accomplished novels, marked by Rushdie’s customary wit and verbal energy, while maintaining contact with important issues of the day. All are successful, though none are as consequential or groundbreaking as Midnight’s Children or The Satanic Verses.

Among other things, Rushdie—by virtue of becoming so well known around the world—has brought new attention to Anglophone Indian literature, which had previously not been all that widely read in the West. Rushdie himself has emerged as a sort of unofficial global ambassador for Indian literature and has commented widely on other Indian writers, especially Anglophone ones. In addition, the critical and commercial success of Midnight’s Children can be credited with playing a key role in the recent growth of English-language novels coming from Indian writers (many of them, like Rushdie, in diaspora), with a variety of Indian Anglophone writers sometimes being grouped (fairly or not) under the rubric of “Rushdie’s children” to indicate the pathbreaking importance of Rushdie’s most important novel.

Some of Rushdie’s children have relatively little in common with Rushdie in terms of style and technique. For example, Rohinton Mistry (born in Bombay in 1952 but a resident of Canada since 1975) writes in a realist mode reminiscent of the great nineteenth century realists, such as Balzac. Mistry has written only three novels, all set in India: Such a Long Journey (1991), A Fine Balance (1995), and Family Matters (2002), but all are much respected and he has won numerous awards. Vikram Seth (born in Calcutta in 1952 but now splitting his time between England and India) has also gotten considerable critical attention. His first novel, The Golden Gate (1986) is written in verse after the manner of Alexander Pushkin’s (1799–1837) Russian verse novel Evgeny Onegin (1833), and Seth in fact has written a considerable amount of poetry. His second novel, A Suitable Boy (1993), set in India just after independence, has the distinction of being one of the longest novels ever written.

Perhaps the member of Rushdie’s children who was most obviously influenced by Rushdie is Shashi Tharoor, who was born in London in 1956 and who has gone on to become a prominent Indian diplomat and politician. Tharoor’s first novel, the playful and hilarious The Great Indian Novel (1989), has been seen as a sort of Hindu version of Midnight’s Children. It retells the story of the Mahabarata within the context of the years before and after independence in India. His next novel, Show Business (1992), is a send-up of Bollywood cinema, while his novel Riot (2001) is a more serious examination of the dangers of religious sectarianism in India. All of Tharoor’s novels, however, are postmodern in their style and technique.

All of Tharoor’s novels have been highly popular in India. However, the member of Rushdie’s children who has gained the most attention worldwide is Arundhati Roy (1961– ), whose novel The God of Small Things became an international sensation after its publication in 1997. Winner of the Booker Prize in that year, this novel thus became the first novel by an Indian-born writer after Midnight’s Children to win that award. It is discussed in detail as an Exemplary Text at the end of this chapter. The huge success of The God of Small Things (published in the year that was the 50th anniversary of Indian independence) was a boon to Indian Anglophone literature in general, and Indian authors have won the Booker Prize twice more since. These additional winners include The Inheritance of Loss (2006), by Kiran Desai (1971– ), whose mother, Anita Desai (1937– ), is also a prominent Indian novelist, herself short-listed for the Booker Prize on three different occasions, though she has never won the award. Much of The Inheritance of Loss is set in the United States, where it also won the National Book Critics’ Circle Fiction Award. Kiran Desai was educated at Bennington College and Columbia University and has lived most of her adult life in the U.S. Her work, like Rushdie’s, captures important aspects of the diasporic nature of life in the postcolonial world. Meanwhile, just two years after Desai, Aruvind Adiga (1974– ) won the Booker Prize for his first novel, The White Tiger (2008). This novel also portrays a globalized world, though it focuses on class differences within India. Adiga, like Desai, was educated partly at Columbia; he also spent considerable time living in Australia, though he now lives back in India.

Rushdie, of course, still overshadows all of his “children” in terms of his prominence in the West. In addition, the “Rushdie’s children” label, however clever, lumps together too many very different writers into a single category, while drawing attention away from important English-language writers—especially predecessors such as Mulk Raj Anand (1905–2004), Manohar Malgonkar (1913–2010), and even the great R. K. Narayan (1906–2001)—who are difficult to link directly to Rushdie. India’s only Nobel laureate in literature, the poet, artist, and musician Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913) also has little connection to Rushdie’s work.[7] Still, Rushdie’s success has actually drawn new readers (and renewed critical attention) to some Indian Anglophone writers who came before him, including such figures as G. V. Desani (1909–2000) and Raja Rao (1908–2006), who have retrospectively come to be regarded as Rushdie’s forebears.

Meanwhile, Rushdie’s self-appointed role as spokesman for Indian literature to the West has also drawn additional attention to that literature, though Rushdie’s tendency to focus almost exclusively on Anglophone Indian literature has sometimes been seen as a serous distortion of the true situation in Indian literature. For example, Rushdie’s survey of postcolonial Indian literature (published in The New Yorker to mark the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of Indian independence) drew considerable criticism when it brashly announced his opinion that

“The prose writing—both fiction and nonfiction—created in this period by Indian writers working in English is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the eighteen “recognized” languages of India, the so-called “vernacular languages,” during the same time; and, indeed, this new, and still burgeoning, “Indo-Anglian” literature represents perhaps the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books. The True Indian literature of the first postcolonial half century has been made in the language the British left behind.” (50)

To make matters potentially worse, Rushdie then republished this article as the introduction to an anthology of Indian literature, Mirrorwork: 50 Years of Indian Writing, 1947–1997, that he edited with Elizabeth West. This anthology, which purports to cover Indian literature, without reference to language, includes only one item that was not written in English and is in danger of creating the impression that most Indian literature is in English.

Rushdie, of course, has a vested interest here, given that he himself writes in English. And it is also the case that he is well aware of all the arguments that for Indian writers to write in English simply perpetuates the damage done to Indian culture by British colonization. And surely this danger only becomes more pressing if one elevates Anglophone Indian literature above literature written in India’s indigenous languages. Nevertheless, Rushdie is surely correct about the prominence of Anglophone Indian literature if one is talking only about audiences outside of India, especially as most Indian literature written in other languages has never been translated into English. Still, those of us who have little access to Indian literature other than that which is written in English should remain cognizant of the fact that Anglophone literature is a minority literature in India, as opposed to its dominant position in the former British colonies of Africa. That such a minority literature has produced such an impressive body of work is a testament to the richness of Indian culture as a whole.


[1] India’s British colonizers, of course, attempted to assert their cultural superiority by denigrating indigenous Indian literary traditions. One might note the famous statement by Thomas Babington Macaulay, who—in his 1835 “Minute on Indian Education”—famously dismissed all “oriental” literature in support of a plan to make British literature (especially the work of Shakespeare) the linchpin of the British colonial school system in India. “I have no knowledge of either Sanscrit or Arabic,” Macaualy modestly begins the work’s most famous passage. He then continues, much more haughtily: “But I have done what I could to form a correct estimate of their value. I have read translations of the most celebrated Arabic and Sanscrit works. I have conversed, both here and at home, with men distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern tongues. I am quite ready to take the oriental learning at the valuation of the orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. The intrinsic superiority of the Western literature is indeed fully admitted by those members of the committee who support the oriental plan of education.” On the processes that led to the establishment of Shakespeare at the center of colonial education in India, see Viswanathan.

[2] On the history of the East India Company, see John Keay. For an argument that the company was the forerunner of modern multinational corporations, see Nick Robins.

[3] The Mughal Empire, founded through military conquest in 1526, ruled much of the Indian subcontinent for more than two centuries. It was largely Persian in background, though I blended significantly with local cultural influences over time. Its rulers claimed direct descent from Genghis Khan (1162–1227). The empire disintegrated by the middle of the eighteenth century due to military losses both to indigenous Indian forces and to the forces of the British East India Company.

[4] See, for example, Jenny Sharpe for an account of British representations of the “Mutiny” in the second half of the nineteenth century, Sharpe emphasizes the lurid and sensationalist nature of these representations, as in their seeming obsession with (greatly exaggerated) stories of the rape of British women by Indian men during the rebellion. Also see my chapter on literature related to the mutiny in Colonial Power, Colonial Texts.

[5] For a study of British fiction about India, see my Colonial Power, Colonial Texts.

[6] For a sampling of criticism on Rushdie, see my edited collection Critical Essays on Salman Rushdie.

[7] Knighted by the British Empire, Tagore renounced his knighthood in 1919 in protest of the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre. Rushdie, incidentally, has called some attention to Tagore, by noting (with considerable surprise) in The Jaguar Smile (1987), a nonfiction account of his then-recent trip to Nicaragua, that Tagore was known and admired there.