The novel in India is conventionally thought to have emerged in the middle of the nineteenth century. The year 1854, saw the publication of Alaler Gharer Dulal, a literary piece of work by Pyari Chand Mitra that was highly praised by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Alaler Gharer Dulal is thought to occupy a unique position in the history of Indian, and certainly Bengali, literature as “the first work in Bengali which can be described as a novel.” As in England, where the rise of the novel is associated with the industrial revolution and emergence of a new sensibility, so in India the novel’s beginnings are said to be linked to the penetration of the market economy into the countryside, the emergence of a middle class, and the advent of other forces of ‘modernization’ and ‘Westernization’. The growth of the novel could be associated with the development of the scientific temper and the emergence of the middle class. With the consolidation of British rule, and the transfer of authority from the East India Company to the Crown, supposedly the very embodiment of the ‘rule of law’, both the rulers and the ruled could devote more attention to the much vaunted ethic of ‘improvement’, and “life became more settled and conventional”.
The novel came to India through western channels. During the latter half of the 19th century, the number of western educated people increased because of the spurt in educational activities and establishment of universities in India. Prose writing came into vogue during those days and through English prose only, regional languages of India were cast into prose style. The prose, initially functional, was also used later on as a medium of artistic expression and a class of native writers could even use English prose creatively for their purpose.
It was Bengal that led the Indian reception of the novel form and its use for creative endeavours with its writers like Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Rabindranath Tagore, Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay, Bibhuti Bhushan, Naini Bhaumik and Manoj Basu among others. Writers from other Indian regions-Nirad Chaudhary, Rajnikant Bardoloi, K.S. Venkatramani, Romesh Chandra Dutt, Sir Jogendra Singh and the famous trio R.K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand and Raja Rao, to name only a few – soon joined the league. They all engaged themselves in the art of novel writing following the model of English type, for it was easily accessible to us and it was practiced by the master colonisers. With colonial complex in operation the English novel came to be the western novel for us and became the pole guiding novel for our writers though there were the few like Bankim Chandra and Govardhanram Tripathi who resisted colonial influence in the ways as different as they themselves were.
There are various factors that proved to be hindrance in the growth of literary novel in India.
Indians believe in the concept of karma and afterlife. According to the Karma doctrine the course of life of every living being here and hereafter is determined by his Karma or his deeds and a pious life leads to comforts, contentment and general well-being in the present life and re-birth in higher and better forms of existence. Evil actions result in birth in lower forms of existence in future life and unhappiness or misery, in the present existence. In short Karmavada may be summarized as the “theory of inevitable consequences of one’s actions.” In India not much importance was given to how individual motives could lead to conflict with others nor was it believed that qualities inherent in individuals could be the catalyst to societal disharmony. In novels much is written about individual motives leading to disruption in societal peace so in India where people thrived on mysticism it was difficult to introduce a concept of individual action leading to societal disharmony.
Another issue in India was that no attempt was made to record the current social environment and all efforts were channelized to attain spiritual enlightenment. In western countries novels derived much plot material from the day-to-day happenings in the society and its effects on people and their relationships. In India since no attention was given to everyday happenings basic plots could not be derived from this resource.
In Novels as stated earlier individuals were given primary importance and many novels were termed as bildungsroman that typically portrayed the growth of an individual from infancy to adulthood. In novels the western concept of individualism, indi
vidual identity reigned supreme. Indians did not stress much on individualism and thrived on community living where individual was secondary. Later writers did write spectacular novels based on community living and paved the path for writings based on group societies like India, Africa etc. The other major problem hindering the growth of novel in India was that no attempts were made to record historical events so Indian novelists could rarely construct a plot based on recorded historical events, they had to resort to extract incidents from folklores any myths which never had any verifiable resource.
Novel is primarily written in prose form though occasionally verses are also included in the novels. In United Kingdom novels thrived during the 17th and 18th centuries as the prose form gained significance during these era. In India though verse form existed since historical times but prose form appeared during the 19th century which accounted for the late arrival of novels in Indian literary panorama.
The factors that obviated the above factors and eventually led to growth of prose fiction in India were many. The major ones were in India traditionally people lived by the diktats of the community and the elders, assertion of individual will was unheard of so portrayals of protagonists fighting against obsolete societal norms was unimaginable. Gradually more and more people came in contact of English language and literature. The nineteenth century intellectuals began to question the Orthodox prejudices, dogmas and superstitions that prevailed in India. The impact of Western learning gave a new impetus to Indian renaissance. Indian society underwent a metamorphosis and progressive thinkers like Raja Rammohan Roy stressed on this aspect in his works. His essay ‘A Defence of Theism’ is lauded as the first original prose publication in English by an Indian author. The people of the country started demanding for changes in values, customs which were met by the government. This dynamism encouraged growth of novels.
The revival of Indian classical learning and the introduction and the study of European arts and sciences gave rise to an unprecedented awakening in India. For the first time in India, a middle class of intellectuals began to emerge from the feudal society, giving rise to intense Nationalism, during which the Indians struggled to articulate their passionate thoughts and feelings through whatever means were available to them. Western education turned the minds of the Indians inside out. It removed the mental blocks and promoted in them a new integral outlook. The transmission of modern scientific and sociological ideas made the Indians aware of the blessings of materialism and social organizations, of the infinite value of democracy as a way of life and of reason as an instrument of analysis and critical inquiry as the champion of free and independent thinking. The awakened Indian started expressing himself in all Western literary forms; especially in the novel. So novel writing received much needed impetus from this class who wrote novels as well as read them.
In the 19th century Indian society was undergoing rapid transformation and the societal fabric was in a state of flux. The British rulers had introduced a number of reforms and English gained a stronghold in the field of education. Through the efforts of the British and the support of groups of educated Indians, the roots of the English language were firmly fixed on the Indian soil. During this period the number of western educated people increased because of the spurt in educational activities and establishment of universities in India. The rise of the Indian Writing in English is, at the onset, to be located historically. The first connection that we should be looking at is the introduction of the English language as a medium of instruction in India and the introduction of English literature as a subject in the Universities. Macaulay’s Minute introduced in 1833 provided for the introduction of English as a medium of instruction with the claim that “the English tongue would be the most useful for our native
subjects.” While presenting his famous minute, Macaulay admitted quite candidly that he had not read any of the Sanskrit and Arabic books and yet did not desist from making such a pronouncement:
“…A single shelf of a good European library is worth the whole native literature of India and
Arabia. …All the historical information which has been collected in the Sanskrit language is less than what may be found in the paltry abridgements used at preparatory schools of England…”
India, thus became a kind of testing ground for the launch of English literature in the classroom at a time when English Universities were still steeped in the Latin and Greek classics. English was, as a result, introduced in educational institutions, Courts and offices thus dislodging the traditional use of Arabic and Sanskrit as a mode of communication and documentation. Lord William Bentinck announced in 1835 that the government would “favour English Language alone” henceforth and would move towards “a knowledge of English literature and Science through the medium of English language alone.” The Wood Dispatch of 1854 proclaimed the establishment of the Universities at Bombay, Madras and Calcutta and thereafter made the English language accessible to students, professors and also the officials of Government offices. In the arena of literary studies too English began to assert itself.
Prose writing came into vogue during these days and through English prose only, regional languages of India were cast into prose style. The prose, initially functional, was also used later on as a medium of artistic expression and a class of native writers could even use English prose creatively for their purpose and this paved the way for the emergence of novels in India. In fact, all the literary conditions that operated in eighteenth century England and favoured the rise of the novel were not different from those which operated in nineteenth century India and favoured the emergence of the novel as a literary form in English as well as in all the Indian languages.
The novel of the Indian Writing in English becomes conspicuous in the second half of the nineteenth century. The claimants for the first Indian novel in English are Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s Rajmohan’s Wife (1864) and Lal Behari Dey’s Govind Samant (1876). Raj Lakshmi Devi’s The Hindu Wife (1876), Toru Dutt’s Bianca (1878), Kali Krishna Lahiri’s Roshinara (1881) and H. Dutt’s Bijoy Chand (1888). These novels depicted realism and rise of individualism in the life and literature of India. By depicting the scene of the emergence of the individualist social order as against the traditional economic and social order the authors championed the cause of the heroes of economic individualism. This period also witnessed the emergence of women writers and it marked the birth of an era which promised a new deal for the Indian woman. The growth of women’s education and the emancipation of the Indian
woman through reformist movements were in themselves significant social phenomena which favoured the rise of the Indian novel in English and they were also the symptoms of the emergence of the individualistic social order which was indispensable to the growth and the development of the novel as a form of literary expression. A common feature inevitably observed in the writing of these writers of this period is that their theme is invariably the Indian woman, the new woman as the writer saw her emerge in the fast changing social milieu. A striking feature of the novels of these writers is that they are, by and large, like personal memoirs and autobiographical sketches with characteristic emphasis on subjectivity and private experience
The story of the Indian English novel is really the story of a changing India. There was a time when education was a rare opportunity and speaking English was unnecessary. The stories were already there- in the myths, in the folklore and the umpteen languages and cultures that gossiped, conversed, laughed and cried all over the subcontinent. India has always been a land of stories, the demarcation between ritual and reality being very narrow.
The Indian English novel erupted in the fiery talks of Henry Derozio, the spiritual prose of Tagore and the pacifist dictums preached by Gandhi. With the coming of Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao and R.K.Narayan, the Indian English novel had begun its journey. In ‘Coolie’ by Mulk Raj Anand, the social disparity in India is laid bare. In R.K.Narayan’s imaginary village Malgudi, the invisible men and women of our teeming population come to life and act out life with all its perversities and whimsicalities. In ‘Kanthapura’ by Raja Rao, Gandhism awakes in a sleepy village down south. India no longer needed to be depicted by outsiders. The perspectives from within ensured more clarity and served a social documentative purpose as well.
The early novels in India were not just patriotic depictions of Indianness. The themes revolved around past history and historical figures of repute. With independence the focus shifted to cultural identity, caste issues, marginalization, women’s issues, alienation etc. Now with the Indian Diaspora being a reckoning force in the publishing world, Indian English speaks a global tongue, unconfined to any particular culture or heritage- the language of the displaced intellectual (the east-west encounter). Some of the writers of English fiction in India had taken up the colonial encounter as their theme in which the scene of social and cultural confrontations between the Englishmen and the natives is depicted. S.M. Mitra and Sarat Kumar Ghosh belonged to this category of writers of the colonial encounter. S. M. Mitra’s Hindupore: A Peep Behind the Indian Unrest; An Anglo- Indian Romance (1909) is as the title suggests, a romance in which the British are among the major characters. It is noteworthy to point out that unlike the British writers who saw and pictured Indians only as Indians and not as men, as individuals, the Indian writers of ‘Anglo-Indian’ novels saw them and pictured them as human-beings first and as Englishmen or Eurasians only later.
Thus with multiple themes and concerns that evolved in each century novel writing as a literary form gained a stronghold in India and still continues to hold a prime place.