Historical Representations in Indian English Novels

When white light hits glass one of two things can happen. Either you have an image, which is faithful if somewhat unexciting, or you have a glorious spectrum which though beautiful is rather a distortion. Light from the past passes through a kind of glass to reach us. We can either look for the accurate though somewhat unexciting image or we can look for the glorious technicolour. (Killam in African Writers on African Writing)

Ever since its genesis in the first quarter of the twentieth century, Indian Novel in English has continued to engage itself with nearly the same themes, that is, history, politics and social reforms, the search for self-identity and so on. In fact, Meenakshi Mukherjee in her book, The Twice Born Fiction, tracing the growth and development of the Indian novel, reveals that the novel emerged at different times in different regions of India, but “almost everywhere the first crop showed a preoccupation with historical romance.” (30) This historical romance then gave place to the historical novel. In India, too, the historical novelists drew upon the past to explain the present. Around 1920s there emerged a trend wherein the novelists used history to write what Mukherjee describes as “narratives of resistance” to the experience of colonialism. The novel which still acts as a lighthouse to the Indian fiction writing is Raja Rao’s Kanthapura. It is the seminal text which set out to subvert the colonizer’s view of India. An ingenuous blend of myth and history, the novel instantly develops a sense of affinity with the Indians while subtly castigating the British for exploiting the country. Viney Kirpal, in one of his essays, writes:

…while most critics link up the growth of the novel in India to a concomitant growth in the Indians’s\ sense of historical time, Raja Rao has written a historical Indian novel not by linear but by the “mythic” or “cyclical” time perspective. (Bharucha, 63)

Kanthapura may not be a historical novel in the Western sense of the word as novels like Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago are, nor is it a traditional epic such as the Ramayana or the Mahabharata, yet it contests the Western notion that India lacks a sense of history. Raja Rao says: There is no village in India, however mean, that has not a rich sthala-purana, or legendary history, of its own. Some god or godlike hero has passed by the village — Rama might have rested under this peepal-tree, Sita might have dried her clothes…In this way the past mingles with the present, and the gods mingle with men…. (Kanthapura, Foreword, v)

Raja Rao, through Kanthapura, has tried to produce the history of India but on his own terms and conditions and in writing his version of the ‘history’ he refutes not only the colonizer’s version of India but also the narratological process conventionally used in the West to write history and literature.

The journey of the historical novel continued through the 1920s to 1950s. The 1950s in Indian historical fiction specially dealt with the national freedom movement with Gandhi as the hero of those times. The 1960s saw a sudden obsession with history all over the world which can be attributed to E. H. Carr’s series of lectures at Cambridge University in 1961 on what constituted history. Carr describes history as “a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past.” (30) The past makes sense to us only in the light of the present and present can similarly be understood only in the light of the past. The historical novels written in 1970s, like Chaman Nahal’s Azadi and Manohar Malgonkar’s A Bend in the Ganges, though engaged in writing history were more humanistic in approach. These novels were written, not against, but “with the grain”. Kirpal feels that these novels “question tradition but they also mediate it with a compromise. However, the 1970s were also the gestation period for the revolution in fictional technique and national sensibility that was to occur in the 1980s.” (Bharucha, 68) Hence the period marks a watershed in the psyche of the Indian novelist who looks at the authoritarian regime of Mrs. Gandhi during Emergency as a form of repression, reminding once again of the ‘colonial’ rule and resented it fiercely through his writing. This experience made the novelist turn to history for a theme in the same manner as the novelists of 1920s and 1930s but with new directions to their writing. These directions incorporated a whole new range of literary exploits, the likes of which had rarely been witnessed on the Indian English scene. The question that arises out of this exercise is that if the same themes of history continue to be fictionalized in the novels of the 1920s as in the 1990s and engage the writers of both the ages, then what makes these novels different? Is it the technique or the outlook or both?

This paper undertakes the study of two historical novels in Indian Writing in English with almost identical backdrop — one published on the threshold of 1980s and the other immediately after. A study of the narrative technique and style of both the novels and the novelists’ outlook would certainly prove worthwhile in answering the queries raised above.

The first novel, Chaman Nahal’s Azadi, published in 1975 deals with eight tumultuous months in the history of the Indian subcontinent and also represents a momentous period of our history. A moving saga of the division of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan and the accompanying disaster that hit these two newly-declared independent countries in 1947 forms the backdrop of the novel. The novel is neatly divided in three parts titled — The Lull, The Storm and The Aftermath — all suggestive and symbolic of the three distinct stages in the narrative. ‘The Lull’ describes the peace and communal harmony among the people of Sialkot before the idea of partition captures the imagination of some Muslim zealots. The novel opens on 3 June, 1947 with the most important historical event of the century, the announcement of the partition of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan and ends with the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi on 30 January, 1948. References to various historical events like the Jallianwala Bagh tragedy, Quit India Movement, the Cripps Mission, the Radcliffe Boundary Commission, the Interim Government with Nehru as Prime Minister and the Sikh demand that the river Chenab should be the boundary between India and Pakistsan abound in this part of the novel. There are frequent references to Gandhi’s offer to Jinnah for a home-land for Muslims within an independent India itself.

What were at first only sporadic acts of murder and arson subsequently explode into massive and organized violence by the Muslims in the city of Sialkot. A sizeable majority of the Hindu families shift to the newly set up refugee camp for safety, and those residing in Bibi Amar Vati’s two houses on the Fort Street also move there on August 2, 1947, under Lala Kanshi Ram’s leadership. Lala Kanshi Ram is helped out by his friend Chaudhry Barkat Ali and a British sergeant, Billy Davidson who lived in the barracks near the Hurrah Parade Ground and was a friend of Arun. Though an Englishman, Davidson was a very reasonable man who liked India and felt that the British rule was a great injustice to India. He had always been against imperialism and foreign possessions. He also knew what his people had done in Malaya and Africa before he came to India. “Local cultures had been destroyed everywhere. More so, in India which had such a long history and tradition.” (117) After the announcement of Partition, Davidson commented: “If you ask me, I think this is the most stupid, most damaging, most negative development in the history of the freedom struggle here. And this time it is we who are pushing things.” (122) He was highly critical of Lord Mountbatten, “You may sing songs in honour of Mountbatten…but he has duped you into a division of the country. Even Gandhi and Nehru failed to hold their balance before him — Jinnah I never counted for much. They have fallen for a handy prize…” (123).

The novel ends with the news of the death of Mahatma Gandhi and the realization of the “loss of identity”. Lala Kanshi Ram becomes painfully conscious of the fact that freedom or Azadi has been achieved at the cost of enormous sufferings and hardships to people. His “loss of identity” and dignity is represented by the following act of his:It hurt Lala Kanshi Ram no end. From the time he set up this little shop, he had stopped wearing a turban. A turban was a sign of respect, of dignity. He had no dignity left. He now wore a forage cap. Or he sat bare-headed, advertising his humble position to the world. (366)

The other novel for review is Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981), a panoramic book spanning a period of seventy years in India’s modern history. The author, born and brought up in the multi-cultural city of Bombay, recreates the vitality and eclectic culture of urban India, with reference to the early decades of the century to the mid-seventies. Sinai, the narrator protagonist, is the embodiment of a supreme moment of history, a crystallization of an evolving mood, a distillation of a vision, nostalgic, critical and philosophical. He is one of the thousand and one children, born between 12 midnight and 1:00 a.m. in the night of August 14-15, 1947, the hour of the nascence of free India. Midnight is the point of time where past and future coalesce in the present and there is liberation from the clock time. Midnight is also the province of fantasy which is a dream like recreation of the actual world. The opening of the novel marks the element of fantasy, “I was born in the city of Bombay… once upon a time…” Saleem’s life, thus, due to his providential birth becomes the history of the country, “I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country.” (Rushdie, 3) Out of a total of such thousand and one children born at midnight, 420 die and 581 survive up to 1957. This is the story of these children whose privilege it was to be both masters and victims of their own time, “The children of midnight were also the children of time: fathered, you understand, by history.” (137)

The novel along with the story of these midnight’s children, is also the story that encapsulates the experience of three generations of the Sinai family, living first in Srinagar then in Agra, and then in Bombay, before its final migration to Karachi. Saleem Sinai, describes the story of three generations of his family to his girl friend, Padma. Sitting up at night in a pickle factory telling his story to Padma, Saleem flaunts his capacity to hold our attention. He is gifted with supernatural power of entering other people’s minds. Saleem takes us back, by courtesy of his “all knowing memory” to his grandfather and grandmother, thirty- two years before his own nativity.

A close study of the two novels, thus, reveals certain aspects about the treatment of history at the hands of the authors. Nahal, who treats history as something sacred, has used it as a metaphor and has also been utmost careful in treating it as “mere chronicle”. His records about the places and dates are true to his word and are maintained in a chronological sequence as if he were a historian instead of a storyteller. The fictional part of the novel appears to be a sub-plot in the scheme of things and the novelist’s main focus lies with the narration of the holocaust. Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, on the other hand, turns out to be a multigenerational, mock-epic family saga, complete with family trees, maps, and a long list of dramatis personae, that tell the story of the protagonist’s family as a national history. Rushdie, unlike Nahal, does not subsume his version of the history into the official version. He rather presents a version of his own based on memory’s truth which, “…selects, eliminates, averts, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies, and vilifies also; but in the end it creates its own reality, its heterogeneous but usually coherent version of events…” (211) For Rushdie truthful recording of events is a matter of the past. He doesn’t mind juggling with the dates, sometimes giving wrong dates to the events and sometimes narrating events in retrospection. This sleight-of-hand has been performed deliberately by Rushdie to lay emphasis on story telling and not mere recording of events. In a clever fashion, he wants his readers to pay greater attention to his art of narration and tries to convince them to treat the narrator as a master story teller rather than a historian. That is why, he prefers memory’s truth to ‘the truth’.

Nahal’s Azadi has its roots deeply embedded in social realism. He himself admits, “For historical fiction to carry a deeper meaning, it must succeed at the realistic level first…. Indeed, this is the only genre in which the artist cannot dispense with realism.” (Dhawan, 41) Rushdie, however, dares to reject the traditional, social realist novel in favour of larger-than-life allegorical characters and events in the tradition of magic realism. Fantasy is the be-all and end-all of Midnight’s Children. The opening passages of the two novels present an interesting contrast as far as the aspect of realism is concerned. Nahal’s Azadi begins on a note of realism with due reverence to the historical event and its date. The novel opens on a serious, historic note: “It was the third of June, 1947. This evening, the Viceroy was to make an important announcement.” Midnight’s Children, on the other hand, has a fantastical and fairy-tale beginning with, “I was born in the city of Bombay… once upon a time…” His 1001 midnight’s children in fact reminds the reader of the classic Arabian Nights, where for one thousand and one nights Sceherzade tells different stories to Prince Shaharyar, each story beginning with, “Once upon a time…” Rushdie, like a magician spreads the magic carpet of his fantasy and creates for us a magical piece of prose fiction.

Nahal also places an additional burden on an author of historical fiction with the belief that the novelist is “obliged to do careful research into the period he has chosen for representation and every detail of that period has to be accurate.” (Dhawan, 43) but Rushdie finds himself under no such obligation. Taking a cue from twentieth century masters of fiction like Aldous Huxley, Gunter Grass, William Golding etc., Rushdie tends to discard absolute realism for myth and fantasy. Life in the present day circumstances is so complex and difficult that the contemporary writers find traditional realistic novel incapable of portraying it satisfactorily. That is why; twentieth century has seen the emergence of such schools of fiction such as the naturalists, expressionists, the symbolists and so on. Like many contemporary writers Rushdie too provides a blend of realism and fiction. He presents the readers with reality but with a dash of fiction and is careful enough not to jolt the sensibility of his readers by exposing them to the glaring reality of the society. His style of narration is sprawling, rambling, full of digressions and humour. The novel is metafictional in nature and even the protagonist is self-conscious that what he is writing is fiction. He uses lapsed memory as a device to destabilize meanings and also deconstructs well-established notions of history, family, tradition, patriarchy, etc. The novel abounds in the use of myth, oral tradition, and different versions and ideas of history. A playful irreverence for the sacred cows of nationalism and religion is another prominent feature of Midnight’s Children. Rushdie also shows both a fluency in Standard English and a confidence with the language in contrast to writers like Nahal who feel their imagination being crippled by “the terminology borrowed from the West…” (Dhawan, 44)

All these factors explain why the Indian novel since the 1980s is different from its precursors. It is different, both in technique as well as sensibility. Powered with these two, the new generation of writers, not only destabilize the given versions of history but also subvert them and sometimes install newer versions to correct the relations of power in contemporary Indian society.

Bharucha, Nilufer E. and Vrinda Nabar, ed. Mapping Cultural Spaces: Postcolonial Indian Literature in English. New Delhi: Vision Books, 1998.
Carr, E.H. What is History? 2nd edition, ed. R.W. Davies.London: Penguin, 1990. Dhawan, R.K. Three Contemporary Novelists: Khushwant Singh, Chaman Nahal,
Salman Rushdie. New Delhi: Classical Publishing Company, 1985. Killam, G.D, quoted in Chinua Achebe: An Anthology of Recent Criticism, ed. Mala Pandurang. Delhi: Pencraft, 2006.
Mukherjee, Meenakshi. Twice Born Fiction: Themes and Techniques of the Indian Novel in English. Delhi: Pencraft, 2001.
Nahal, Chaman. Azadi(1975). Delhi: Orient Paperbacks, 1979. Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children (1980). New York: Random House, 2006.
Walsh, William. “India and the Novel” in The New Pelican Guide to English Literature, Vol. 8, ed. Boris Ford. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983. P. 257

Categories: Historical Fiction, Indian Writing in English, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Magical Realism, Research Papers

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2 replies

  1. Presented well history-fiction interface and the thin line between the two

  2. Beautiful interpretation…Also Read Raja Rao’s Kanthapura as a Gandhian Novel

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