Reading India between the lines

Representations of India in contemporary Indian literature in English reflect the multiple views on and of the country.

The power of literature lies in its ability to represent people, places and an era in time. Characters, the world they inhabit, their interaction and relationships with one another, the history, sociology and politics in context to the setting of the book and individual psychology — each combined make up a fabric which represents an epoch in itself. How does contemporary Indian fiction in English represent India? Is India represented as a country, a feeling or by its people? Here are four very diverse representations out of a myriad, which delve into this question.


First is the representation of India as a chaotic and geographical whole, wrapped in its diverse socio-religious-cultural politics and landscape, similar to the India we inhabit out of the pages of books. A novel, which succeeds in representing India in a literal sense, is Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. Though set in post partition 1950s India, Seth successfully manages to portray fragments of North India, as a unified whole, not completely divorced from our present reality. He creates a fictional city of Brahmapur — situated on the banks of the Ganges, between Patna and Benaras. The social-political-religious Indian diversity is effortlessly sewn into the characters and their interactions. A conservative mother seeks a groom for her daughter, a Muslim boy falls in love with a Hindu girl, the Chief Minister’s son develops untamed passion for a Lucknowi courtesan and anglicised couples dance in the clubs of Calcutta. Nehru, a character in the novel struggles with a newly independent India while the Nawabs face the question of a changed future. The Hindu-Muslim strife, abolition of the Zamindari system along with the land reforms are only a part of the intricate politics of the 1950s. Riots, elections and festivals take place portraying the Indian reality along with family, marriages and personal dilemmas. While the novel is not set in our contemporary era, and does not explicitly mention every part of the country (south and northeast India are not mentioned) Seth manages to take a period in Indian history and a piece of geography and bleed out every aspect of the newly independent nation. The representation therefore becomes relevant to us as it portrays elements of life in India, common through the country in any given era. This kind of representation, which stems from Realism, can be seen in the works of RK Narayan, where Narayan creates a similar landscape of Malgudi in South India and portrays the multifarious aspects of life common across the country.

The second is the representation of India as an ambiguous or an alien territory to Indians who live ‘within’ its borders. This representation finds its base in history, politics, sociology and religion and how they play on the individual identity. In such literature, the characters often facing a crisis of identity based on geographical dislocation, religious displacement, political ideologies and distorted personal histories, question the idea of a singular nation and nationhood. The Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh is an example of such literature, where the unnamed omniscient narrator oscillates between the streets of Delhi, Calcutta and London fighting personal demons and questioning nationhood, nationality and individual identity. Ascertaining the validity of maps, borders, religion, culture, the insanity of sectarian violence and its impact on a person and consequently a society at large become broader themes that are addressed. The intricate plot and nuanced language further layers the vague feeling of ‘India’, which is omnipresent in the characters.  Works of other writers such as Anjum Hassan often explore this vacancy through such a representation of India.

The third representation of India is almost inverse to the one above. Here, India is seen from an outsider’s point of view, almost as a metaphor for a space for cultural identity and belonging. In such a representation, the alienation felt is ‘from’ India and not ‘within’ India. This is seen especially in literature with characters who are part of the diaspora. Questions of nationality and its lack stem from a feeling of alienation in a foreign land.  Most literary works of writers such as Jhumpa Lahiri delve into this representation.What is India for a population that only knows of it as their ancestral land? What are the alien Indian traditions, cultures and values, if any? Where does the diaspora belong — in the foreign lands it calls home or in the yearning for India that is a result of ancestral heritage? Why is one dislocated and exiled from a nation one does not belong to or understand? Do migrants feel a sense of guilt about leaving behind their homeland? What is citizenship and nationhood? The existential crisis of most characters and the plots are not based on their own psychology but rather on this idea of a national identity that is not owned. While all diaspora literature does not strictly incorporate it, most touch upon this representation in some form or the other. In a broad sense, India is either a land of prelapsarian perfection — backed by nostalgia and stories of ancestors; a space where the lost diaspora finds identity and stability; a space for the loss of self because of the loss of a past that was never owned; or simply a land of the ancestor, looked at with a blend of apathy and curiosity.

The fourth and a very recent representation is that of India as an urban geographical space defined by its young populace. India in such a representation happens to be the space where a novel is set — the story could take place in any part of the world. Works of writers such as Chetan Bhagat and Anuja Chouhan often have this representation. These literary works portray working class individuals living mostly in urban cities, focusing on their relationships, romantic trysts, professional lives and interactions with one another, devoid of existential questions beyond the ‘self’. It mostly ignores explicit questions of nation and nationality and overlooks the existence of ‘India’ beyond a geographical landscape that the characters inhabit. Even if the question of an identity seeps in, it is often in context to a particular society, culture and religion (a protagonist wants an inter-caste/ inter-religion marriage or wants to settle in a different state or country). In these novels, India as a whole, is a mere stage — a backdrop where the characters enact the drama of their lives. While certain aspects of ‘Indianess’ drive the novels (An Indian wedding/ workplace/ college setting), it is the story and the characters that form the crux, making the Indianness a foil to the larger and more complex plot.

Literature looks at human life through multiple lenses, using plots, narratives and perspectives. This etches out the larger framework of a given literary work and an author’s point of view. Whether India is represented realistically as a diverse yet unified country, as an alien entity to citizens living within its borders, a metaphor for an idea or a space of belonging or as a mere geographical set for the story to be situated in, its representations in contemporary Indian literature in English reflect the multiple views on and of the country. Each of these representations deserve further exploration and introspection. Though generalised, they represent the diversity not of ethnicity but of intellectual thought, perception and consciousness and how that plays into our views about a country. Through the literary space, these representations allow us to examine what India means to an individual at different levels and hence question its very existence beyond the obvious that we see in front of us.

Photo: allyrose18