Framed by a socalled “Western” lens, India is often viewed as an exotic, faraway place – an image reinforced in Western classrooms, which rarely venture into discourse about Indian history outside of the well trodden territory of Gandhi or, at a push, maybe even the Moghul Empire. Essentially, the Western understanding of India and its citizens is often not comprehensive or even entirely true.
With the media perpetually propagating lazy stereotypes, and the national curriculum doing little to educate us about the uncomfortable realities of the Britain Empire’s colonisation of India, maybe it’s time to search elsewhere for a true education on the deep heritage of the country, and Indian English Literature (IEL), using fictional narratives to weave the rich and authentic tapestry of Indian history and culture, can do just this.
Truth and the power of Fiction
There is, perhaps, a certain irony in suggesting that fictional texts can more effectively inform us about history and identity than the formal education we receive, but literature is inherently social commentary, and what can teach us more about society, culture, and history than a primary source? Yes, writers devise these stories, but IEL, along with all other forms of literature, depicts real events and scenarios, through the use of fictional storylines, ranging from politics and historical events to social issues.
The medium of fictional writing is accessible and universally appreciated. As an Indian myself, I use the IEL I’ve read, conjunctively with family ties and stories, to understand and stay rooted to my homeland, so it doesn’t seem so far away. It connects me to my heritage and, although I have been brought up with my Indian culture very much in the foreground, IEL allows me to view my identity through a different perspective and gives it another dimension.
The novels I feel best cultivate an authentic sense of India are A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth (1993) and The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (1997). The books’ only common ground is the backdrop against which their stories take place, and the immersive nature of their respective storylines. Seth portrays India in all its vividity, demystifying Western perceptions of its identity, whilst Roy tackles the reverberating effects of colonialism and the increasing Westernisation of India.
These particular books of the IEL genre can be viewed as sources of education as the twentieth century India they explore is often misrepresented or not deeply understood. Although both writers engage with different themes, their similarity is that they write about India through a native lens, wearing the strengths and flaws of the country on their sleeve and with adamant refusal to water down the culture to make it more palatable to wider audiences.
A Suitable Boy and Indian society
Standing as one of the largest texts in the English language, you do not even need to open A Suitable Boy to know it is going to offer you an educational journey. Giving hugely detailed and gripping insight into the inner workings of Indian society and its people, it examines love, religion, and politics in the Eastern sphere. Although set in 1951, it is an informative read for anyone wanting to learn about Indian values and culture, which transcend time and remain relevant to the country today.
The novel also closely follows the intertwining lives of four families, and such close family bonds are as integral to the storyline as they are to Indian identity. Seth’s story is grounded in ordinary events, and the universal experiences of love and conflict and so through this, he gives India a unique humanisation and normality. All walks of Indian society are depicted throughout the novel, giving layered perspectives, which only adds to the story’s authenticity.
He critically examines genuine matters such as the caste system and the deep rooted prejudices within India, whilst upholding traditional concepts that remain misunderstood and misinterpreted by non-ethnic audiences, such as arranged marriage. His unapologetic tone and manner of writing conveys how he welcomes you to understand and contemplate the real India, but is making no pandering attempt to justify elements that may seem foreign to you. Through this transparent approach, he incidentally dismantles careless Western perceptions of the country, and portrays it in all its vivacity.
The God of Small Things and post colonialism
Although arguably more of a Marmite novel, Roy’s The God of Small Things provides riveting commentary on India’s post-colonial identity. Throughout the novel, the deep rooted and pervasive effects of British rule are dissected. Through her characters’ behaviour and the ongoing discussion of Anglophilia, the admiration or partiality for English traditions, she looks at the instilled glorification of the West. She also looks at the issues that come with the disregard for culturally traditional values, in favour of English approved ones.
This complex reality, borne directly from imperialism, is brought to a head by the arrival of the family’s English relatives, where the Indian idealisation of their Western counterparts is depicted in all its absurdity. Whether it is through Eurocentric beauty standards, the need for approval of the English ex wife, or the want to be in the ‘perfect’ Von Trapp family, each character grapples with Western fascination in their own way which exposes the disillusionment that Indian society faced in the aftermath of British rule.
India’s post colonial heralding of the West is overtly ridiculed and critiqued by Roy through the troubles and traumas the characters face whenever they become involved with English culture. She attempts to emphasise that losing your own culture in the pursuit of another will always have negative consequences. The novel teaches the insidious impacts of colonisation, traces of which can still be felt in Indian society today. Western education seems to conveniently miss this out.
Literature’s ability to allow a people to reclaim their own narrative is unparalleled by any other medium. IEL innately conveys the true India that exists beyond the fetishised Western perception of it. The deep history and culture of a country cannot simply be reduced to its monumental events, it is instead an amalgamation of people, religion, politics, and society.
If you want to know the true essence and identity of India, read its literature, because although fictional, its pages illustrate authentic stories that history books tend to forget.