21st Century Perspectives on Indian Writing in English : A Time to Turn




Book Review

21st Century Perspectives on Indian Writing in English: A Time to Turn

Debasish Lahiri and Pradipta Mukherjee (Eds.),

 Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2023, ISBN: 978-1-5275-8978-0, 256 p.


Book Review by : Mihaela GLIGOR


India is a country of an immense diversity and accommodates people from different cultural backgrounds, different languages, different religions and different art representations. The Indian literary tradition is among the oldest and richest in the world. The entire history of Indian culture is now available worldwide due to the English writings / English translations. Rabindranath Tagore’s poems became known all over the world only after he translated them into English. Because of the mediation of the English language, Tagore’s poetry won the Nobel Prize in literature – the first of Asia – in 1913.

In a country as diverse as India, writing in English opens the horizon and facilitates the exchange of ideas. This volume, focused on 21st Century Perspectives on Indian Writing in English, deals with the importance of expressing the incredible traditions of Indian literature in a language of universal understanding.

As expressed in the Preface, this volume “is a set of essays that are both interesting and intrepid as they engage with an array of texts, drawn from genres like poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and drama, from post-millennial perspectives.” (x) Edited by Debasish Lahiri and Pradipta Mukherjee, both affiliated to the University of Calcutta, the volume contains 14 important chapters on Poetry, Fiction and Essay, Drama and three incisive interviews with the Indian English poet Bashabi Fraser, the renowned Indian English fiction writer Kunal Basu, and the premier Indian English playwright Mahesh Dattani. “As a body of critical essays, A Time to Turn does not consider the past as home; it does not “melt with truth” but remains firm in its mensuration of the long historical shadows cast by literary works forward, into the future.” (xi)

The volume opens with a section devoted to Indian poetry. The first chapter is written by Debasish Lahiri, and it is called “Modernism via Byculla: How the Bombay School of Poetry defined Indian Modernism.” Here the author discusses the “tale of two cities: Bombay and Calcutta.” “While Calcutta developed as an insular, surly, self-reflexive bastion of orthodoxy and exclusiveness in the image of the British pioneers, Bombay emerged as a space that embraced change, the flotsam of diverse influences, the Babel of cultural voices and aspirations.” (3) This “tale of the two cities” focuses on the relationship between the English language and its attendant culture, in the respective two cities, and explains how the poetry managed to find its way into these cities, and how it changed the cultural paradigms. The poetry captured the imagination of the people, especially in Bombay, “certainly the most composite, multilingual, and multi-confessional of Indian cities, where Portuguese, British, Jews, Parsis, Iraqis, Russians, Chinese, and Persians but also Indians and refugees from the whole sub-continent congregated and left their mark.” (5) Analyzing the Bombay school of poetry, Debasish Lahiri explains how “English actually changed class-orientation in Bombay.” (7) “English became synonymous with the language of hegemony in Calcutta.” (7)

On the continuity of Indian English poetry writes Angshuman Kar, professor at the University of Burdwan, underlining the significant interest in publishing Indian poets in English: “Several anthologies of Indian English poetry have been published by well known publishing houses like Sahitya Akademi, Oxford University Press, Penguin, Macmillan, and Harper Collins.” (10) Kar also mentions “a significant number of Indian English poets who are Muslim by religion and in whose poems there are continuous negotiations with Muslim identity. The list includes poets like Tabish Khair, Saleem Peeradina, and Imtiaz Dharker as well as Aga Shahid Ali,” or Kamala Das, an author that became significant through her representation of typically feminine sensibilities. (12) According to Kar, Kamala Das “asserted her identity not only as a postcolonial bilingual poet but also as a woman.” (14) “When Kamala Das says that she is an Indian, very brown, and born in Malabar she is actually asserting her identity not only as an Indian but also as a Malayali.” (15) Being a Poet in India had (and still has) multiple identities and each and every one of them are extremely important and should be emphasized through lyrics. “Kamala Das was followed by a number of women poets such as Eunice de Souza, Melanie Silgardo, and Mamta Kalia. Their poems clearly show that they were trying to come to terms with their gender identity in an India that was highly gendered and completely under the control of patriarchy despite having a female prime minister for a significant period.” (15) On the same pattern, of recognizing their identity, “in the context of the representation of the politics of exclusion and identity, the emergence of a Dalit voice in Indian English poetry is unquestionably a new and significant phenomenon.” (19)

Medha Bhadra Chowdhury, professor at St. Xavier’s University Kolkata, next insists on recreating local geographies in the poetry of Arun Kolatkar. “The landscape is not a formless space but is associated with people. Place is a relational concept and is invested with meaning,” (24) she considers. “Kolatkar’s poetry presents a different notion of literature by challenging the binaries of language and consciousness. […] Modern urban life lived on streets and in slums produces new subjects, solidarities, and meanings.” (30) “Kolatkar’s poetry glides across two distinct languages and cultures in order to remap regional boundaries and create a peculiarly unique sense of the local within a global context.” (35)

In a new chapter dedicated to Bashabi Fraser’s poetry, Debasish Lahiri considers that her writing “is a celebration of this myriad-sounding self: at once Indian and British, Hibernian and Bengali, local and global, intimate and immense, personal vignette and the history of a nation.” (38) Poetry is very important, as it creates bridges between cultures.

The second section of the book is focused on Indian fiction and non-fiction in English. It opens with Pradipta Mukherjee’s chapter on Kunal Basu’s The Opium Clerk (2001), “a grand adventure, a fascinating saga that sweeps across Asia. […] It stretches across to China, Malaya, and Hong Kong, weaving in a variety of cultures.” (54) The author’s analyses are completed by a personal interview with Kunal Basu, taken on 18 February 2003. We find that Calcutta /Kolkata is also a character in the writing, as “the physical descriptions of the auction house are based on the Writers Buildings in Calcutta.” (55) In the 19th century, Calcutta was “the capital of the opium trade from the commercial point of view.” (55) This description appears in many other writings, and speaks of “the socio-cultural condition of the Bengalis of the time.” (56) But Basu’s description of “the Black town” and “his evocation of a distant drug culture” (57) speak about an Orient that was awash with addicts. “A game of deceit and betrayal is played as the novel unfolds and we become a witness to a kind of moral darkness.” (58) This is partly allegorical, as “for Basu, the power of the British colonizers lies in the duality of his nature (personal interview, 18 Feb. 2003).” (59) In the end, “the journey in The Opium Clerk has run its full course, evolving from darkness to light.” (63) It’s a wonderful written chapter that offers multiple stories, the most important one being that of a city in searching for its own light.

Next is Julie Mehta’s chapter on Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide (2004). From the very beginning, Mehta insists on “how translation, transmutation, and transformation, as manifestations of hybridity, are the  driving forces that fuel Ghosh’s project to re(a)dress the divine myth of the river goddess Ganga in The Hungry Tide.” (66-67) Mehta’s attention is focused on “the act of translation” and its importance as an intimate act of transmitting not only the words, but also the feelings. “English has become a vexed and bloody battleground of national struggle and reappropriation. Ironically, Ghosh himself is a translated man: educated in Delhi, Oxford, and Egypt, Ghosh speaks Arabic, Bengali, English, and Hindi, and lives in New York and Goa. English enables the diasporic, “translated” writer like Ghosh not only to share his experiences with farflung inhabitants by means of a shared tongue, but also ironically to communicate with fellow citizens within India, who might share only one of twenty-two official languages.” (68) Julie Mehta’s essay also “examines Ghosh’s significant contribution as a writer of the postcolonial-postmodern period in bringing about spiritual globalisation by melding the vanishing world of untamed nature with the gratuitously aggressive world of high technology.” (70) Beyond that, “Ganga’s problematic identity […] is a well exploited icon in Indian art and architecture.” (77) Mehta also insists on “the tension between belonging and not belonging” which is examined and developed by Ghosh through “the elusive and muted language of memory in this novel.” (81)

In her well written and much documented chapter, Julie Mehta, a specialist in postcolonial and world literatures, writes that The Hungry Tide is very important because “it evinces a flexibility of transculturation, grafting the primordial on to the contemporary, lending itself appropriately to an analysis of an alternative vision of established life.” (84) Also, “in the postcolonial context, this work underlines the importance of salvaging a lost tradition of multiple and rich religious heritages, their enormous strength to provide a compass to find new identities among different religious communities in India.” (85) In the end, “The Hungry Tide reiterates how mythology and science, as representations of the ancient and the contemporary, are both organised systems of knowledge based on a close study of the environment, and how both systems are perpetually open and incomplete, always caught in the crosscurrents of the material and the mythical.” (90) The Hungry Tide is translated in many languages and it offers to the reader, anywhere in the world, a sense of “local-global intersectionality, a cosmopolitan impulse that Ghosh himself applauds and supports in his own life as an activist-writer.” (90) This novel is also the subject of Nishi Pulugurtha’s chapter “Landscape, Territory, and Survival in Tide Country: Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide,” included in the same section of this important volume.

On “Jhumpa Lahiri’s Heteroglossia in a Cosmopolitan Perspective” writes Didier Coste, a noted polyglot writer, literary translator, and literary theorist, currently Professor Emeritus at Université Bordeaux-Montaigne, France. His study “aims at showing how a cosmopolitan comparative/world literature perspective can bring to Jhumpa Lahiri’s work at large new creative meanings and values that were offset by its naturalisation as the production of a second-generation Indian-American writer.” (94) He focuses on “the gesture of speaking/writing in another voice and language”, which “is essential for the worlding of this experience.” (95)

This section is completed by other essays signed by Alex Taek-Gwang Lee, “The Realism of Non-fiction: Arundhati Roy and Theodor Adorno”; Pradeep Trikha, “Rushdie’s Quichotte: Cartography of Memory, Nostalgia, and Desire”; and Anirban Guha Thakurta, “Visual Rhetoric of Untouchability: A Study of Selected Amar Chitra Katha Titles and Bhimayana”. It’s interesting to see a predilection for Bengali writers (Amitav Ghosh, in particular), contested writers (Salman Rushdie) and the comparisons made with authors belonging to different cultures (Adorno) or topics that analyze important subjects (untouchability).

The third section of this volume is devoted to Indian drama in English. Vinay Sharma’s chapter “From Calcutta to Kolkata: A Theatre Practitioner’s Journey through English-Language Theatre in the City (1980-2021)” is a wonderful journey through the recent history of English language theatre in the city of joy. It is true that in the beginning, “the English-language theatre had a very committed niche audience that waited expectantly for new shows,” and “the English-language theatre was not considered a significant contributor to the socially aware and politically charged theatrescape of Calcutta.” (171) Also, “in the period 1980-2000 it is only in the educational sphere, in school/college theatre, that we find evidence of sustained playwriting in the English language in Calcutta.” (172) Years after, “the British Council Original One Act Play Competition” produced a change in the mentality and Chaos Theory was “the first Indian play to make the finals of the BBC World Playwriting Competition in 2007.” (172) The author focuses on the transformations that followed with the change of the name of the city, from Calcutta to Kolkata, and conclude that “in recent years there have emerged some writers and theatre workers who brazenly challenged the status quo, who were open and adaptive to change and very receptive to feedback and recognition.” (174) Multiple examples are given here – including “Asijit Datta has written Chairs (2010, adapted from Eugene Ionesco)” (176) – in order to show that a change was possible. Still, as author concludes, “Indian writing in English in Kolkata theatre may find it difficult to grow beyond a certain point.” (177)

On “Gender and Social Critique in Vijay Tendulkar’s His Fifth Woman” writes Hem Raj Bansal, professor in the Department of English at Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala. “His Fifth Woman is the first play by Vijay Tendulkar originally written in English. […] The play highlights women’s predicaments in a patriarchal society.” (180) This is a delicate subject, but the author manages “to question the male-female binary and how superior-inferior relations have done a great disservice to women,” and also recognizes that, with this play, “Tendulkar has made a substantial contribution.” (187)

The last contribution of this section belongs to Subhendu Sarkar, professor of English at Ranaghat College, Nadia, West Bengal. It focuses on “Beyond the Given: Badal Sircar’s Theatre of Liberation”. He thinks that “Badal Sircar’s serious proscenium plays exhibit a tendency to go beyond the limits of naturalistic theatre. In his plays, he often introduces prototypical characters, incorporates several stories and locales, portrays different periods, and depicts non-linear plots.” (190) “Every play written by Badal Sircar in his Third Theatre phase exposes the contradictions existing in the society we live in,” (193) and his theatre “remains a glorious example for those who strive to found a humane society.” (200)

The volume is completed with three important interviews with Bashabi Fraser, Kunal Basu, and Mahesh Dattani. “In the first interview, Pradipta Mukherjee engages Bashabi Fraser, CBE, in a conversation regarding the ways in which post-millennial realities have shaped her poetry. Debasish Lahiri then addresses questions of nostalgia, origins, and the role of memory in a candid talk with novelist Kunal Basu as they navigate the author’s journey to the present day. In the third interview, Lahiri and leading Indian playwright Mahesh Dattani discuss issues surrounding the limits of drama, the new roles of art in society, and the socio-political content of drama written in English in India.” (xiii)

21st Century Perspectives on Indian Writing in English: A Time to Turn is an important collection of pertinent voices, and thus appeals to students and teachers of postcolonial and comparative literatures, not only from India, but worldwide, as it offers first hand testimonies of how Indian writings in English changed after India’s Independence, and how through its literary production, India won the hearts of the readers everywhere in the world. It also raises crucial and timely questions about the state of culture in India and the world, the crisis of intolerance, and the loss of memory and diversity. It is a wonderful volume which I highly recommend to those interested in Indian studies.

(Note: The numbers in brackets in the above article refer to the page number(s) in the book under review)

About the Author:

Mihaela Gligor is Scientific Researcher in the Philosophy of Culture at The Romanian Academy in Cluj-Napoca, “George Baritiu” Institute of History, Department of Humanities, and also the founder and the Director of Cluj Center for Indian Studies, Babes-Bolyai University Cluj-Napoca.

Latest volumes: Tagore beyond Borders: Essays on His Influence and Cultural Legacy, Volume edited by Mihaela Gligor and Elisabetta Marino, London, New York: Routledge, 2023, and Between Two Worlds: Romania and India. Essays on Expanding Borders through Culture, Volume edited by Mihaela Gligor and Lipi Ghosh, Cluj-Napoca: Cluj University Press, 2023. Contact: mihaela.gligor@ubbcluj.ro.

About the Editors of 21st Century Perspectives on Indian Writing in English: A Time to Turn

Debasish Lahiri is an Academic & Poet. He is an Assistant Professor of English at Lalbaba College, affiliated to the University of Calcutta. 
Pradipta Mukherjee is an Academic & Film Critic. She serves as an Associate Professor of English at Vidyasagar College for Women, affiliated to the University of Calcutta.