Manual India’s Literary History:Essays on the Nineteenth Century

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The British community in India also had its own caste of outsiders: those who, either through choice or necessity, did not fit into the tripartite framework of recognized society. And then there were the missionaries, who turned their backs on the Raj, and strove to bring Christianity, education, and medicine to even the smallest and most isolated jungle hamlet.

In addition to the complex vertical stratification of British society in India, there was another dimension of social consciousness. When their term of office or employment ended, most people packed up and returned to England, but for a few, for those born and raised there, India was home, and in some cases had been for three or four generations.

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For most such Anglo-Indian [5] families, the almost mandatory period of childhood education in England did little or nothing to weaken their ties with India, and there existed a distinct sense of social superiority to other, less permanent residents. The development of one of the earliest and greatest railway systems in the world did much to overcome the first of these, but there was little or nothing that could be done about the second.

The summer monsoons were a period of lethargy and disease, and took by far the greatest toll of British lives. The autumn saw the advent of the 'Cold Weather', a purely relative appellation which meant little more than 'bearable' as opposed to 'unbearable'. The months from September to March were a time of great social activity, perhaps the only months when the weather made possible such pastimes as riding, shooting, and dancing.

It was also the time for visitors to arrive from England. The grim realities of Indian life made marriage a virtual impossibility before late middle age. Enormous initial debts had to be paid off out of meagre earnings, promotion to ranks that would allow the financial luxury of married life had to be awaited with patience, and the grudging approval of superior officers was an infractible social prerequisite. Towards March the round of dances, parties, and gymkhanas began to tail off, and the visitors made their way home to England.

British India, meanwhile, prepared itself for the ordeal of the Hot Weather. And an ordeal it truly was, in an age when the only method of air-conditioning was that of circulating air through water-soaked hurdles called 'tatties'; a system which, when working efficiently, was capable of lowering the temperature inside a room by all of one or two degrees. In such heat, work was unthinkable, and the officials of the Raj led those of the British community as could afford such a luxury in the annual trek into the delicious coolness of the mountains, to spend the hot weather in the pine-scented seclusion of the hill stations.

In the south, Ootacamund provided a refuge from the heat of Madras and the Carnatic, whilst in the north, the Himalayan foothills offered a profusion of small hill stations such as Mussourie, Naini Tal, and Darjeeling. The queen of them all, however, was Simla. Here it was that the Viceroy and his entourage came to stay, and with them the entire apparatus of British government.

For several months of each year, a small village perched on improbably steep hillsides in the shadow of the snow-topped Himalayas became the capital of India. Once the mould of British society in India had been set, the innate conservatism of that society ensured that there were few if any major changes over the eighty or more years to Independence. With the advent of that Independence in , the Anglo-Indians were faced with the choice of 'staying on', or pulling up roots and making a fresh start in the United Kingdom or some other part of the Commonwealth.

Most decided to leave India, and time has taken its inevitable toll of the few that chose to remain. The administrators of post-Mutiny India were often disparagingly called 'competition wallahs', a reference to both the stiff entrance examinations of the elite ICS, and to a host of other practical and theoretical examinations that determined subsequent promotion and status. Such an examination system produced an administrative class of the highest intellectual calibre, and in an age when it was almost de rigueur to write one's memoirs upon retirement, the civil servants, judges, and generals of the British Raj left behind a legacy of wit and erudition.

Countless such biographies and memoirs now lie gathering dust in forgotten libraries. For more than two hundred years now, literate Western society has chosen to express its truths and realities in the form of the novel, and it is upon that particular form that the following brief survey of the literature of the Raj will focus. Contrary to popular misconception, Kipling was not the first writer to deal with India and Indian life. Some of the earliest Indian novels published in England go back as far as the s, and by the beginning of the 19th century, a steady stream of quaintly exotic novels was serving to assuage the British public's curiosity in its ever-growing Indian possessions.

Clearly reflected in the novels of this period, also, is the evangelical undercurrent that was to change the course of British policy in India. It was the enormous psychological impact of the Indian Mutiny, however, that forced the British public to reassess its somewhat patronizing and optimistic view of foreign cultures and race relations, and stimulated a renewed and perhaps more mature interest in India.

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The novels and short stories of Sir Henry Cunningham and Philip Robinson attained a measure of popularity in the 's, and saw the publication of Rudyard Kipling's Plain Tales from the Hills. Born in Bombay, Kipling was sent to England at the age of six, there to endure a lonely and traumatic education before returning once more to India and obtaining employment as a journalist. His sketches of Anglo-Indian life first appeared in English-language newspapers such as the Civil and Military Gazette , and collections of his stories delighted patrons of Wheeler's Indian Railway Library, a series of cheap paperback books sold at most railway stations, and designed to help weary travellers overcome the tedium of long train journeys across the Indian sub-continent.

Although primarily written for domestic consumption, Kipling's stories began to attract attention in England, and in he made the difficult decision to leave India and try to establish himself in the literary circles of London. By the end of the century he had become one of Britain's greatest literary figures. His abhorrence of political involvement led him to refuse a knighthood and many other honours bestowed upon him, but he did agree to accept the Nobel Prize for Literature in During his lifetime, Kipling's popular appeal, and his awesome status as the nation's de facto poet laureate, [6] made him the object of much scornful criticism, particularly from the rising generation of iconoclastic 'decadent' writers.

Bewitched by the lure of communism, inspired by propaganda scenes of apple-cheeked peasant girls binding stooks of sun-ripened corn, and blissfully ignorant of the millions of Russians dying from man-made famines and the bullets of the NKVD, this generation of intellectuals reserved its bitterest vituperation for such 'imperialistic' writers as Kipling.

Whilst world-wide sales of his novels, poems, and stories continued to grow, [7] Kipling's name became anathema in 'serious' literary circles, and even as late as , George Orwell felt obliged to couch his essay on Kipling in the form of convoluted paradox and irony. Although Kipling's Indian stories comprise but a small fraction of his total literary output, the quality, range, and authenticity of these stories have established him as the finest exponent of the genre. Nearly all subsequent writers of Indian novels have acknowledged their debt to him, and in this, more than any fickle academic reputation, lies ample testimony to his genius.

The same politicalization of literary criticism that chose to dismiss any work dealing with the Empire as 'imperialistic', and made any serious study of Kipling's work impossible for over fifty years, also ensured that a number of other writers of this period went almost totally unrecognized. The Indian novels of Flora Steel and Maud Diver have passed into literary oblivion, and another writer of the s, Edward Thompson, is now chiefly remembered as a minor poet.

Born into a family of Wesleyan missionaries, Thompson was himself ordained upon graduation from London University, and spent many years teaching in Bengal. He eventually resigned the ministry and returned to England, where he became a lecturer at Oxford, first teaching Bengali to ICS probationers, and then devoting himself to research in Indian history at Oriel College.

His years in India left Thompson with a deep love of Bengali literature and culture, and he was a friend of such great Indian figures as Gandhi, Tagore, and Nehru. His Indian novels, set for the most part in the isolation of small up-country communities, deal sympathetically with the nationalist movement, and see a spiritual reconciliation of cultures and religions as a step towards inevitable devolution of British power. Although it might be an exaggeration to say, as some writers have, that the first volume of Thompson's Indian trilogy [9] ranks with Kipling's Kim as one of the finest novels ever written about India, nevertheless his books remain some of the best evocations of British India in the third and fourth decades of this century, and certainly deserve more recognition.

One extraordinary exception to the many Indian novels consigned to limbo by the intellectual tenor of the times is E. Forster's A Passage to India [10] , which, to judge by the proclamations of many critics, is the only English novel ever written on the subject. Such evaluations would seem to be the product of the kind of literary philistinism that dismisses science-fiction as a literary genre, but condescends to acknowledge the third-rate SF novels of such second-rate 'serious' writers as Aldous Huxley. Whatever the purely literary merits of A Passage to India , it stands condemned by both Indian and British writers for its inaccurate portrayals of both communities.

Forster spent a total of twelve months in India, and it is perhaps unfair to criticize the validity of the personal impressions he gained during this short time. The fact remains, however, that the critical acceptance of A Passage to India has served to draw the attention of educated readers away from other, more authentic novels. When an aspiring writer called Molly M. Kaye tried to interest a publisher in her first novel on the Indian Mutiny, she was told that it had no hope of success, as 'Jack' Masters had already cornered the market for that kind of book.

Like so many other Anglo-Indians, he then chose to leave India, and settled down in the United States. In his novels, Masters has consciously tried to cover the whole historical span of British rule, from the Mutiny to Independence, and Bhowani Junction [12] , set in the last years of the Raj, has the distinction of being one of the few Indian novels to have been made into a film.

Independence, when it came, caught many people unprepared for its suddenness. Only a few years earlier, it would have been unthinkable that the Crown would allow one of its most prized possessions to slip out of its hands.

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The unthinkable, however, became a reality, and the years after the war saw Britannia in an almost indecent rush to divest herself of each and every last vestige of colonial accoutrement. Throughout the fifties and sixties, an almost interminable succession of independence celebrations made the ceremony of the lowering of the Union Jack a familiar sight on British television, and many relatively minor members of the Royal Family emerged from near anonymity to serve as representatives of the Crown on such august occasions.

By the s, little was left of the greatest empire in history, and the British public, now fully absolved from any unpleasant imperialistic guilt feelings, could settle back and thoroughly indulge itself in unfettered nostalgia for a departed age. Whether this nostalgia was but a reflection of the same dissatisfaction with modern urban life that popularized pine furniture, brown bread, and fake Victorian packaging, or whether it sprang from a true fascination with a vivid and turbulent era in Britain's history, there is no way of telling.

Suffice to say that there has been a very real change in the attitude of both scholars and the public towards the Empire in general, and India in particular. One of the most striking indications of this renewed interest has been the extraordinary success of M. Kaye's The Far Pavilions [13]. Published in , this enormous page saga of 19th century India sailed effortlessly to the top of the British best-seller lists, where it remained for several months. Repeating the same unprecedented success in the United States, it has sold more than five million copies world-wide.

Although much of the book would appear to be sheer swashbuckling fantasy, almost all of it is based on recorded historical events, many of them intimately connected with members of Molly Kaye's own illustrious family.


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The runaway success of The Far Pavilions gave new life to Shadow of the Moon [14] , her first novel, published in a grossly truncated form in Reprinted in its original version in , this novel of the Mutiny proceeded to repeat the success of The Far Pavilions. Another remarkable novel dealing with the Mutiny is J. Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur [16]. Unlike most Mutiny novels, it avoids the oft-recorded events of Delhi, Lucknow, and Cawnpore, and focuses on the defence of a small fictitious town by a band of ill-assorted Englishmen.

Farrell died before he could complete his second Indian novel, but it is a measure of public interest in the subject that this fragment was published in its incomplete form. The success of this enormously complex tetralogy attests to a much more mature interest in the turbulent years before Independence. At first glance, the chief protagonist of the Raj Quartet would seem to be the mirror image of the hero of The Far Pavilions , the former being an Indian raised and educated in British public schools, and subsequently totally unable to re-adapt to Indian society, the latter being a young Englishman raised by Indians, and finding his loyalties and affections tragically divided.

The parallel between the two works does not, however, go beyond this superficial similarity.


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Whilst The Far Pavilions is a splendidly written adventure yarn which recaptures much of the atmosphere and excitement of India in the 19th century, the Raj Quartet is a complex psychological tapestry of inter-related subjective realities, accurately mirroring all the fears, uncertainties, and animosities of both Indian and English communities on the eve of Independence. Both The Far Pavilions and the Raj Quartet have now been made into highly successful television films. The former was shown on British television as a six-hour drama over the Christmas period of , whilst the latter was broadcast as a weekly series in the spring of Whatever their theme or setting, most novels about British India deal ultimately with the relationship between Englishmen and Indians, between ruler and ruled.

With Independence, that relationship ceased to exist, and it might seem that any genre that takes that relationship as its primary subject can, at best, serve only as a retrospective mirror, and is doomed to ultimate sterility. Whilst it is a palpable fact that the Raj is long gone, its legacy survives. It survives in the currency of English as one of the languages of educated Indians, and it survives in the large numbers of Indian immigrants that have made their homes in England, and have transformed such unlikely places as Southall, Leicester, and Loughborough into veritable Indian townships.

A new generation of writers such as Salman Rushdie and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has emerged to record, in English, the realities of contemporary Indian society, both at home and in self-imposed exile. Both these writers have managed to gain early literary recognition and encouragement, and there is every reason to believe that English novels about India and Indian life will be with us for a very long time to come.

This number does not, of course, include the many volumes that have appeared since This is not to ignore the contribution of generations of Scotsmen to the commercial life of both India and the Empire, nor to overlook the important role played by Irish soldiers in the Imperial Army.

Used here and throughout this essay in its original meaning. Fears that he might refuse an offer of the post resulted in the appointment, in , of the nonentity Alfred Austin. The exquisite irony of this seems to have escaped most literary historians. At the time in which Orwell's first novel Burmese Days is set, Burma was technically a part of the Indian Empire, and this has led a number of scholars to include him in surveys of Indian literature.

Arnold, This thirteen-part series was produced at considerable expense as a result of the favorable critical response to an earlier pilot film version of Scott's sequel to the Quartet , Staying On London: Heinemann, XVII, Home Publications Library News. The Literature of British India J. Buda Introduction At the height of its glory, the British Empire encompassed nearly a quarter of the earth's land mass and a quarter of its population. If much of the Empire was a blank in British minds, India meant something to everybody, from the Queen herself with her Hindu menservants to the humblest family whose ne'er-do-well brother, long before, had sailed away to lose himself in the barracks of Cawnpore.

India was the brightest gem, the Raj, part of the order of things: to a people of the drizzly north, the possession of such a country was like some marvel in the house, a caged phoenix perhaps, or the portrait of some fabulously endowed if distant relative. Orsini, Francesca 'Traces of a multilingual world: Hindavi in Persian texts. Leiden: Brill. Orsini, Francesca 'Love Letters. A Cultural History.

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Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. Orsini, Francesca 'Detective Novels. Essays on the Nineteenth Century. Delhi: Permanent Black, pp. New Delhi: Permanent Black, pp. Orsini, Francesca 'The Reticent Autobiographer. Mahadevi Varma's Writings. Biography, Autobiography, and Life History.

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Orsini, Francesca and Marzagora, Sara and Laachir, Karima 'Multilingual locals and textual circulation before colonialism. Orsini, Francesca 'Present Absence: Book circulation, Indian vernaculars and world literature in the nineteenth century. Laachir, Karima and Marzagora, Sara and Orsini, Francesca 'Multilingual locals and significant geographies: For a ground-up and located approach to world literature. Orsini, Francesca 'Between qasbas and cities: Language shifts and literary continuities in north India in the long eighteenth century.

Orsini, Francesca 'Whose Amnesia? Literary Modernity in Multilingual South Asia. In Press. Orsini, Francesca 'How to do multilingual literary history? Lessons from fifteenth- and sixteenth-century north India. Orsini, Francesca 'A Review Symposium. Orsini, Francesca The Hindi public sphere,