Indo-Anglian Fiction: Writing India, Elite Aesthetics, and the Rise of the ‘Stephanian’ Novel

by Leela Gandhi

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The last two years have been good for the Indian-novel-in English, witnessing a satisfying output from both established and emerging writers. Rohinton Mistry and Amitav Ghosh have each published long-awaited new novels, the success of a host of newer writers such as Vikram Chandra, Ardhashir Vakil and Kiran Desai (also the daughter of Anita Desai), seems to confirm the continuing appeal of the cosmopolitan ‘India novel’, and, of course, Arundhati Roy has just won the Booker. Concomitantly, a multitude of cynics and (India) enthusiasts have rushed to explain the rising status and growing popularity of Indian fictions. Among such cynical enthusiasts (or, in this case, enthusiastic cynics), Salman Rushdie has attracted the greatest attention for his recent diagnosis of the state and future of Indo-Anglian letters.

In the (always-already) infamous introduction to his co-edited anthology, The Vintage Book of Indian Writing : 1947 – 1997, also published as a separate article entitled, ‘Damme, This is the Oriental Scene For You’, in the New Yorker‘s special fiction issue (June 23 & 30, 1997), Rushdie makes a couple of startling assertions. First, he insists that the prose writing produced 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 16 ‘official languages’ of India, the so-called vernacular languages … ‘ (Rushdie & West 1997, x). Second, he baldly asserts that only those Indian writers capable of producing prose fiction in the english language are fit to be canonised: ‘”Indo-Anglian” literature represents perhaps the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books‘ (My Emphasis;¬†Rushdie & West 1997, x). In other words, after several linguistically and textually barren centuries, India has finally found its creative voice in the fictional fragments of the Rushdie generation.

Rushdie’s arguments draw upon a certain sort of pervasive poststructuralist postcolonialism, which finds in the discourses of globalisation and internationalism a vital antidote for the terrible evils of ‘nativism’, ‘localism’ and ‘nationalism’. In his essay, Rushdie recasts this theoretical bias as an adversarial confrontation between the internationally voluble English language, on the one hand, and the small sounding Indian ‘vernacular’, on the other. ‘Parochialism’, as he writes, ‘is perhaps the main vice of the vernacular literatures’ (Rushdie & West 1997, xv). The Indian entry into the order of ‘englishness’, is thus postulated as a heady arrival from the jagged confines of the South Asian subcontinent into the spherical wholeness of the larger world. The Indo-Anglian generation is so good precisely because it is ‘too good to fall into the trap of writing nationalistically’ (Rushdie & West1997, xv).

Having made these discursive moves, Rushdie finally comes face-to-face with that old-fashioned charge of elitism. For, as he acknowledges, in a country such as India it is only the very elite who have access to englishness and to the cultural and financial currencies of cosmopolitanism. Accordingly, hostile and pious critics have all too often condemned Indo-Anglian fiction ‘for being the literary equivalent of MTV culture, of globalising Coca-Colonisation’ (Rushdie & West 1997, xiii). What then is Rushdie’s response to such allegations? First, he urges discerning readers/theorists to recognise that the voice of anti-Indo-Anglianism belongs — invariably — to a retrogressive and dangerous breed of traditionalists and cultural nationalists who are always seeking a ‘spiritual dimension essential for a “true” understanding of the soul of India’ (Rushdie and West 1997, xiii). Second, he suggests — quite productively — that we must learn to live with the fact that elite culture (of one sort or another) has once again come to supply the necessary creative nourishment for the late-twentieth-century postcolonial novel.

I wish, in the remaining part of this essay, to pursue some of Rushdie’s propositions along the axes of a more ‘local’ debate which, in some crucial ways, parallels the international version of the Indo-Anglian question. Some years ago, Rukun Advani, editor of OUP (India) and author of the novel, Beethoven Among the Cows, published an essay very similar in tone to Rushdie’s recent piece. Effectively a defence of the elite underpinnings of the new Indian novel in English, Advani’s essay, ‘Novelists in Residence’ (Seminar no. 384, August 1991), argued that the rising Indo-Anglian novel was inextricably tied to the rising Indian middle-classes, and that most significant new Indo-Anglian novelists had passed through the holy triumvirate of Doon School (India’s most elite boys only public school), the super-privileged St Stephen’s College (in Advani’s words, ‘an unusually attractive blend of Cambridge and the redder bricks of Delhi’) and then, either Oxford or Cambridge. These thrice-blessed writers whom Advani named ‘the Ghosh generation’ after Amitav Ghosh (author of The Circle of Reason, The Shadow Lines, In An Antique Land and The Calcutta Chromosome), all, allegedly, emerged out of a fertile and hybridised cultural soil ‘in which St Stephen’s, like Plotinus’s Great Soul, was the highest form’ (Advani 1991, p. 15).

Despite its self-evident tongue-in-cheekness, Advani’s polemical article gained the attention of several detractors many of whom, like myself, hailed from St Stephen’s self-consciously and aggressively less elite and rival Hindu College, whose history (unlike that of the more conservative St Stephen’s) happily includes a serious flirtation with the Indian national movement. However, while cross Hinduites read Advani’s words as proof that St Stephen’s was indeed the (deracinated) ‘running dog of western imperialism’, responsible Stephanian’s provocatively invited contributions to the college magazine for two special issues celebrating ‘The Stephanian School of Literature.’ Needless to say, the constituent elements of this hypothetical ‘school’ are very similar to those which make up the ‘englishness’ of the Indo-Anglian fiction recently canonised by Salman Rushdie.

There is, of course, something inordinately foolish in the idea of a ‘Stephanian School of Literature’. My objection, as Delhi University debaters might have once said, is really a ‘matter of semantics’. Schools of thought are a serious sort of business. It takes a great deal of premeditation, organisation, self-consciousness, discipline and doctrinaire conviction to constitute a ‘school’. If the dozen or so men of uneven talent and prolificity — identified by the editors of The Stephanian‘s special issue as influential Stephanian fictionalisers — had spent days and months collaborating and collectively experimenting in the production of a distinctive narrative style, we might, at a pinch, have called them a school. As it happens, these Stephanian writers conspicuously lack what the novelist Shashi Tharoor calls a ‘continuing affinity, a sort of literary band of loyalty’.

Rukun Advani’s ‘Novelists in Residence’, tells a charming and pretty story of a well spent youth on the other side of the road named after the great Stephanian teacher and philosopher S. K. Bose. It must have been very nice indeed to romp about with irreverence and intellectual fervour through cafes and libraries that, uncharacteristically for Delhi University, sold food and lent books. The ‘Ghosh Generation’ went to an exceptionally good college (to which they came from exceptionally good schools, from where they went to other good colleges) and their writing is strongly symptomatic of the intellectual and linguistic confidence which comes, I think invariably, from what we must call — once again, in deference to Delhi University parlance — a ‘solid’ education. There are, of course, and always have been many other places in Delhi University which deliver substantial instruction, nor must we forget that the Stephanian end product is jollied along in its confident irreverence by the additional bonus of class, privilege, etcetera.

What I am really trying to say here is that St. Stephens itself was a happy and probably very formative incident in the lives of some ‘Indo-Anglian’ writers. But the fact that these writers were once at St. Stephens is itself nothing more than an interesting accident. We do not assume a Stephanian school of breakfast food because some very roughly coeval Stephanians now work for Kellogs or, for that matter, a Stephanian school of acting, even though countless Stephanians have remained stubbornly and visibly thespian in adult life. Nevertheless, the curiously presumptuous idea of a ‘Stephanian School of Literature’ has acquired a horrible tenacity. Within some Indian circles, people — of the academic and journalistic variety — are starting to talk as though recent ‘Indo-Anglian’ fiction, specifically the novel form, has received a characteristically Stephanian schooling.

It is certainly — albeit mistakenly — the case that the figure of the ‘contemporary Indian novelist’ has become indistinguishable from that of the riotously witty and determinedly mobile ex-Stephanian. The writer Shama Futehally inadvertently confirms this popular perception in the Acknowledgments to her neglected novel Tara Lane (1993), where she thanks supportive friends who, ‘have told me firmly that you can write a novel without having been to St Stephen’s College. Therefore any merit and all faults are to be laid at their door’. It is both disturbing and instructive to read Futehally’s somewhat apologetic self-assertion as a freakishly non-Stephanian writer of novels. We may well recall Harold Bloom on the anxieties of influence here, because our subject is really canon formation or what Raymond Williams has called the politics and culture of ‘dominant’ forms.

Let me suspend my initial indignation for a moment to argue that while ‘A Stephanian School of Literature’ is a false presumption, it is also a necessary idea. Take the eager reviewer for the India Today who clever-cleverly claimed that, ‘”St Stephen’s” of course, is a code for writing which is reminiscent of privileged, bustling quads and redolent of jockstraps and cynical, brilliant undergraduates hyped up by their gonads and their wit’. The mind boggles at this improbable celebration of gonadic intelligence which gives phallocentrism a whole new meaning. And yet, this statement needs to be read for what it is, namely, an articulation of social desire which belongs, structurally and generically, to the sort of statement brilliantly captured and parodied in the opening sentence of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’.

There is a point to this seemingly bizarre and preposterous comparison. For, although differently, the India Today reviewer and Mrs Bennett both tell us something about the motivations and conventional energies of the novel form. If the narrative of nineteenth-century English prose fiction is impelled by the necessary and absurd logic of matrimony, contemporary ‘Indo-Anglian’ fiction is, I submit, driven by the even more absurd mythos of Stephania. In other words, if marriage is necessary to the social world of the nineteenth-century novel, St Stephen’s is, as Advani suggests, symbolically and metaphorically indispensable to the imaginative preoccupations of recent mainstream Indian English fiction. All of this begs some consideration of genre, and happily, a great deal of traditional-critical and High-Theoretical ink has been spent in making social sense of the novel form.

Benedict Anderson (the blue-eyed theorist of postcolonial speculation) has famously suggested that novels — and newspapers — are the print-forms through which nations recognise themselves. It is Anderson’s contention that nations are imaginative and cultural artefacts rather than empirical and scientific entities. They are imagined into coherence because, ‘the members of even the smallest nations never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion’ (Anderson 1983, p. 6). The novel and the newspaper are, in this context, the two technical secular forms capable of containing and representing — in one place — the impossible diversity that is the nation.

Thus, the novel becomes a sort of proxy for the nation. Its pages communicate, in Anderson’s words, ‘the solidity of a single community, embracing characters, author and readers, moving onward through calendrical time’ (Anderson 1983, p. 27). This does not at all mean that the novel is ipso facto a truly democratic, authentic, objective, natural and unmediated slice of ‘national’ life. It so happens that nations are shaped and sliced according to the informing tastes and appetites of novelistic consumers and producers. Thanks to Raymond Williams and his ilk we now comprehend the novel as the fictional form that is appropriate to the characterisation of bourgeois society and that is the bearer, as it were, of bourgeois ideology. To put this in a less bristly way, the novel form tends to imagine the nation as and through the middle-classes and their sensibilities.

Could we even say that nations are imagined — invented — when the middle-classes are interesting enough to have novels written about them? The interesting-ness of the middle-classes is, of course, historically and culturally variable. So also, the Indian babu has changed considerably over time to become, over the last couple of decades, more and more mobile, affluent, globalised, metropolitan etcetera. Inevitably, he now wants this self image to be consolidated and confirmed in the novels he reads and sometimes writes. It could be said, a la Anderson, that he wants and is able to fictively imagine the nation as the embodiment of his aspirations.

There is, however, another ‘postcolonial’ sub-plot to the story of the self-made, self-making new Indian English novel. Edward Said et al have vociferously claimed that the English novel itself emerged out of an unwholesome collaboration with the bourgeois and expansionist aspirations of a decisively imperial nation. Said often protests too much, and as a number of recent critics have argued, his insistence on the grand narrative of imperialism entirely suffocates the complex ways in which the colonised world creatively and psychologically managed the ‘West’. But I cite Said here because I believe that, with the exception of select writers like Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth and Arundhati Roy, the new Indian English novel is seriously constrained by his theoretical hypotheses. It is Said’s claim, specifically in his monumental Culture and Imperialism (1993), that the nineteenth-century novel was principally a cultural form which — almost without exception — refined and articulated the political hegemony of Empire and, therefore, ‘englishness’. In Said’s words:

For the British writer, ‘abroad’ was felt vaguely and ineptly to be out there, or exotic and strange, or in some way or other ‘ours’ to control, trade in ‘freely’, or suppress when the natives were energised into overt military or political resistance. The novel contributed significantly to these feelings, attitudes, and references and became a main element in a consolidated vision, or departmental cultural view, of the globe (Said 1993, p. 88)

The main thrust of Said’s argument here, as in earlier books like Orientalism (1978), is that the nineteenth-century novel was the paradigmatic cultural form through which the ‘West’ represented and narrated its possession of the rest. All of this puts a heavy burden on the ‘third world’ novel, which is now obliged to do self-consciously postcolonial things like ‘write back to the West’, ‘find its voice’, ‘appropriate’ and perennially ‘subvert’ the Englishness of English fiction. As Said puts it: ‘Many of the most interesting postcolonial writers bear their past within them — as scars of humiliating wounds, as instigation for different practices … as urgently reinterpretable and redeployable experiences, in which the formerly silent native speaks and acts on territory taken back from the empire … ‘ (Said 1993, pp. 34-35).

In other words, our civilisational silence has only been broken recently through the incomprehensible prose style of Salman Rushdie and Homi Bhabha. More seriously, Said’s plan for postcolonial narrative ‘resistance’ narrowly includes only that very specific class of elite third-world intellegentia. In order to successfully instigate the ‘different practices’ he writes about, it seems necessary to be a certain sort of very cosmopolitan individual, educated and employable in the ‘West’, mobile, migratory, diasporic. To put this simply: so as to always speak back to the ‘West’, it is crucial to speak in a way that the ‘West’ understands, publishes and, paradoxically, authorises. It is crucial, that is, to hold a ticket to the new ex-colonial and globalised middle-classes.

Let me try and pull these digressive arguments together. I would like to suggest that the figure of the new/postcolonial Indian English novelist is in a deliciously ‘win-win’ situation. The intervention of critics such as Said makes it possible for this figure to speak simultaneously from an enviable position of privilege and dissent. Paradoxically, it is by virtue of its hegemonic status within the nation that the new Indian English novel becomes counter-hegemonic in relation to the ‘West’. In this sense, the postcolonial novel seems to occupy the same space and possess a similar agency to the anti-colonial nation-state. Which brings us back to the mythos of Stephania: that rich reservoir of elitism and irreverence, privilege and — that terrible word — subversion. St Stephen’s, we might argue, is utterly emblematic of the social aspirations and — however skewed — the postcolonial obligations of the new Indian English novelist. Where else, as Upamanu Chatterjee’s English, August demonstrates, can we imagine the formation of the radically abusive artist as a young civil servant?

This account of the ‘Stephanian’ novel is not meant to communicate a sense of moral outrage. I have no desire to instigate or participate in a pious diatribe against the ‘deracination’ of the new Indian English novel. In a political climate where the worst sort of cultural and religious fanaticism is, indeed — and as Rushdie keeps reminding us — regularly justified in the name of cultural authenticity, a metropolitan sensibility has a lot going for it. I take it as a given that a variety of historical and literary circumstances have made it possible — even imperative — for the postcolonial novel to narrate the nation through a distinctively Stephanian idiom. This is the generic and cultural paradigm within which new Indian writers in English display their fictional products, and we must judge them accordingly.

Raymond Williams is instructive here. In his insightful essay, ‘Forms of Fiction in 1848’ Williams suggests that nineteenth-century novels are ‘better’ or ‘worse’ in the extent to which their narrative mode is ‘indicative’ or ‘subjunctive’. While indicative novels, he argues, simply ‘offered an account of what had happened and what was happening’, subjunctive texts went that little bit further in gesturing beyond what was socially or culturally available. Thus, while subjunctive texts symptomatically betray the constraints of their literary/cultural milieu they are also inventive, interrogatory, rebellious. Through them we come to understand both the pleasures and the limits of the world in which we find and recognise ourselves. In pursuing Williams out of Victorian England into ‘postcolonial’ India, I would like to suggest that most ‘Stephanian’ novels are boringly — if skilfully — ‘indicative’ of the sensibility through which the newly elite Indian middle-classes recognise their community in the nation. Very few, challenge the limits of this sensibility, fewer still refuse the postcolonial middle-classes the narcissistic pleasures of self-recognition.

In this regard, writers like Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh and now, Arundhati Roy are, I believe, among the most ‘subjunctive’ in their Stephanianisms. While Ghosh’s bildungsromans seriously negotiate the intellectual content of his literary inheritance, traversing unusual and decisively non-metropolitan cultural circuits between, for instance, India and Egypt, Roy’s fictional canvas, likewise, renders up a map of misrecognition. Her unusually anti-picaresque heroine in The God of Small Things, enacts a journey in reverse — from the cosmopolitan wholeness of America to the quiet provincialism of Kerala.

Seth, too, is unique in his playful manipulation of readerly expectations. His work simultaneously invokes and undoes all the conventional tropes of ‘Stephanian’ fiction. His journey abroad, in From Heaven’s Lake, takes us to Tibet rather than Oxford, his linguistic versatility in anthologies like The Humble Administrator’s Garden, even further East to China, and his first ‘metropolitan’ novel, The Golden Gate, refuses the nostalgic blank-verse of diaspora to produce, instead, a triumphantly gay and unrecognisable Californian novel in sonnet form. The surprises of A Suitable Boy are, likewise, numerous. To conclude, however, I would especially like to draw attention to Seth’s Haresh — that wickedly inaccurate portrait of a Stephanian: paan-chewing, sartorially dubious in his co-respondent shoes, a third-divisioner in English honours, a ‘B.Com type’ who goes to England for a footwear course, a joy to the Hinduite reader.

So, to come full circle, there are serious and wider ethical limitations to Rushdie’s and Advani’s line on Indo-Anglian fiction. In valorising a certain class of writer in the name of enlightened cosmopolitanism, both turn away from the creative and cultural realities of another, possibly more troubled, India. The voice of this ‘other’ India may not be as immediately accessible or aesthetically appealing to an international readership, but surely this is a matter of taste rather than value. In this regard then, among the writers variously canonised by Rushdie and Advani, the most interesting include those who remain suspicious of their own cultural privilege, and whose fiction is thus capable of pushing against the generic/narrative limits of its own elitism.

Leela Gandhi lectures in the English Department of La Trobe University.
Her books include Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction, Allen & Unwin.

Works Cited

Advani, R. 1991, ‘Novelists in Residence’, Seminar, no. 384, August 1991, pp. 15-18
Anderson, B. 1991, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, 2nd edn., Verso, London & New York
Rushdie, S. & West, E. (ed.) 1997, The Vintage Book of Indian Writing : 1947 – 1997, Vintage, London
Said, E. 1993, Culture and Imperialism, Chatto & Windus, London
Williams, R. 1986, ‘Forms of Fiction in 1848’ in Barker et al. ed. Literature, Politics and Theory, Methuen, London

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