Dialogue  April-June, 2012, Volume 13 No. 4

The Postcolonial Paradox: A Gandhian Critique of Contemporary Indian Literature in English

Sudhir Kumar


I. Introduction:-

The ineffable yet perennial paradox of translating/representing the Indian context into a foreign language called English still characterizes the works of the practitioners of postcolonial literature in English in India. Because of its affiliation with colonial as well as neocolonial (global as well as native) power-structures, the dominance and location of the English language (and literature in English) in the context of India have always been interrogated by such writers/thinkers as Bankim Chatterjee, Rabindranath Tagore, Gandhi, Sri Aurobindo, Premchand, Raja Rao, R.K. Narayana, Mulk Raj Anand, Agyeya, Dr Rammanohar Lohia, U.R. Ananthamurthy, Nirmal Verma, Ramesh Chandra Shah and others.

Few can doubt the continuing relevance of Gandhiji’s critique of the English language (as well as literature produced in English) in the postcolonial situation in India outlined in his Hind Swaraj (1909). He rightly cautioned the seekers of "swaraj" or freedom for India about the deleterious impact of the dominance of the English language on Indian culture and society, and thereby, did set the agenda for the so-called postcolonial writers/ postcolonial and cultural studies in English in India :-

"To give millions a knowledge of English is to enslave them. The foundation that Macaulay laid of Education has enslaved us. I do not suggest that he has any such intention, but that has been the result….We write to each other in faulty English, and from this even our M.A.s are not free; our best thoughts are expressed in English… Our best newspapers are printed in English. If this state continues for a long time, posterity will – it is my firm opinion – condemn and curse us". It is worth noting that, by receiving English education, we have enslaved the nation… English-knowing Indians have not hesitated to cheat and strike terror into people….Is not this absolutely absurd. Is it not a sign of slavery? Am I to blame the English for it or myself? It is we, the English knowing Indians, that have enslaved India. The curse of the nation will not rest upon the English but upon us."( pp.78-79).

It is amazing to notice here that Gandhiji self-consciously avoids using the popular rhetoric of hating the English for the continuance of the oppressive dominance of the English language in the postcolonial India. His critique of the situation of the English language in India is marked by remarkable adherence to truth, simplicity, directness and intense self-criticism. The present essay makes an attempt to critically examine, in brief, the contours and contexts of recent postcolonial writings in India with special reference to Gandhiji’s critique of the dehumanizing impact of the dominance of the English on Indian culture and society.

II. The Postcolonial: Theory and Practice

Let us consider, in brief, the significations of the much-used term postcolonialism or the postcolonial with reference to Indian English literature. In its broadest sense, postcolonialism, as described by Bill Ashcroft, Helen Tiffin and Gareth Griffith in their Key Concepts in Postcolonial Studies, "deals with the effects of colonization on cultures and societies… it is becoming widely used in historical, political, sociological and economic analyses, as these disciplines continue to engage with the impact of European imperialism upon world societies."(pp. 186-187). Critics like Edward Said, Gayatri C. Spivak, Homi Bhabha, Frantz Fanon and others also underline the fact that this term has often been used to refer to the discourses of the anti-colonial/ post-independence nationalisms which are crucial to our understanding of the past and present power-relations in global affairs. Commenting upon the field of the postcolonial studies Ian Buchanan (in his Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory) aptly affirms that it "takes an " (i) anti-essentialist approach to identity; (ii) it privileges difference over sameness; (iii) its political outlook is pluralist and anti-hegemonic….. it problematizes all forms of subalternity and subjugation" (p.373). In his famous essay- "Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for "Indian" Pasts?", Dipesh Chakrabarty argues that in the university-based academic discourses of history, "Europe remains the sovereign theoretical subject of all histories, including the ones we call ‘Indian’, ‘Chinese’, ‘Kenyan’ and so on. There is a peculiar way in which all these other histories tend to become variations on a master narrative that could be called ‘the history of Europe’." ( p.340). Similarly, Homi K. Bhabha in his book The Location of Culture (1994) underlines how the postcolonial foregrounds "the unequal and uneven forces of cultural representation involved in the contest for political and social authority within the modern world order. Postcolonial perspectives emerge from the colonial testimony of Third World countries and the discourses of ‘minorities’ within the geopolitical divisions of East and West, North and South" (p. 171). One may go on and on interminably citing theories after theories culled from such diverse fields of Euro-Americo-centric theory as postmodernism, post-structuralism,(post)- feminism, new leftism, subalternism, new historicism, eco-criticism, cultural studies etc. in order to enable a helpless native (Indian) subject/reader to understand what the term "the postcolonial/postcolonialism" stands for.

The brief and tentative discussion referred to above is only a pointer toward the hegemonic nature of the discourses of postcolonialism that tend to efface and obliterate the native narratives of resistance and protest that foreground subjecthood or agency of the native Indians against the forces of colonial or neocolonial oppression. Lost in the labyrinth of strange and esoteric western theories and theorists, one looks in vain for references to the contributions of Indian thinkers in the field of postcolonial literary studies. Hence, the deliberate and conspiratorial erasure of the voices of such civilizationally significant thinkers/writers as Bankim Chatterjee, Swami Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore, Sir Syed Ahmed, Abul Kalam Azad, Subhash Chnadra Bose, Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Sri Aurobindo, Jotiba Phule, Pandita Ramabai, Baba Saheb Ambedkar, Mahatma Gandhi, Anand Coomaraswami, Rammanohar Lohia, Premchand, Mahadevi Verma, Agyeya, Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, Nirmal Verma, U.R. Ananthamurthy and others in the discourses of postcolonial studies. In this alarming scenario, one may well agree with Gandhiji’s observation that the responsibility of perpetrating the present-day oppressive dominance of the English language in India rests with the anglicized, westernized, upper/upper-middle class urbanized Indian elite who are the true inheritors of Macaulay’s legacy. The appalling neglect of literatures written in twenty two Indian languages, (including great literary works in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Oriya, Bengali, Gujarati, Punjabi, Assamese and others) in the field of metropolitan postcolonial studies bears out the truth explicit in the Gandhi’s diagnosis of loss of identity and colonial as well as neo-colonial mimicry that characterize our education and cultural institutions today.

III. Literature and Swaraj (Freedom) Today: Whose Postcolonialism?

Let us critically consider how the contemporary postcolonial literature in English in India represents the people’s struggles, protests, joys, hopes, agonies, sufferings, dreams, successes, defeats, victories, worldviews and social, political, cultural and spiritual ideas and aspirations that mark their identities. It is worthwhile to remember how Raja Rao’s famous "Foreword" appended to his great novel of Indian nationalism from below- Kanthapura (1938) problematizes the role of an Indian writer in English:-

"The telling has not been easy. One has to convey in a language that is not one’s own the spirit that is one’s own. One has to convey the various shades and omissions of a certain thought-movement that looks maltreated in an alien language. I use the word ‘alien’, yet English is not really an alien language to us. It is the language of our intellectual make-up… but not of our emotional make-up… We cannot write like the English. We should not. We cannot write only as Indians. We have grown to look at the large world as part of us" (p. v.).

The spirit or the idea of India that both Gandhiji and Raja Rao want an Indian writer to address is related to the relationship between literature and freedom (which should be available even to the last human). In other words, a literary work (irrespective of its labels such as colonial or postcolonial) should reflect the basic question of human existence- that is our constant quest for the attainment of true freedom- social, political, economic and spiritual. Let us focus on the question- do some of the most celebrated and much awarded narratives of our postcoloniality reflect this freedom in its true and widest sense?

A. Whose Children? Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children?

In his "Introduction" to the anthology of postcolonial Indian writing- The Vintage Book of Indian Writing (1947-1997), Salman Rushdie, perhaps the most celebrated, most awarded and most controversial contemporary British-Indian writer, condemns the Indian culture and society in the most disparaging terms:-

"Fifty years of work, by four generations of writers, is impossible to summarise, especially when it hails from that huge crowd of a country (close to a billion people at the last count), that vast, metamorphic, continent-sized culture that feels, to Indians and visitors alike, like a non-stop assault on the senses, the emotions, the imagination and the spirit" (p.ix).

Such is the much-prized "postcoloniality" of our ace postcolonial writer who finds Bharat and Bharatiya Sanskriti (India and Indian culture) an abominable entity that immediately "assaults" the delicate social, aesthetic and spiritual sensibilities of the postcolonial elites like Rushdie!! It is, however, a classic case of the (post) colonial paranoia that he extracts all the raw material of his postcolonial fictional productions from this very aesthetic and moral monstrosity called Bharat. Consider the case of his postcolonial magnum opus- Midnight’s Children( 1981) which showcases Rushdie’s dazzling display of magic realism, self-reflexivity, linguistic wizardry, chutnification of history and fiction and metafictional gimmicks. But the narrative of Midnight’s Children breaks down under its own weight of linguistic-stylistic tricks. How Rushdie represents Indian women in the novel is open to all kinds of questions. For example, Rushdie makes Saleem Sinai describe the black rumps of her naked mother in a bizarre fashion:- " And there it is , searing my retina- the vision of my mother’s rump, black as night, rounded and curved, resembling nothing on earth so much as a gigantic, black Alfonso mango!" (pp.161-62). Moreover, at the end of the novel, the annihilation of India is fictionally projected as its legitimate destiny:- " … because it is the privilege and the curse of midnight’s children to be both masters and victims of their times, to forsake privacy and be sucked into the annihilating whirlpool of the multitudes, and to be unable to live or die in peace" (p.463). Needless to say, Midnight’s Children won the Booker and the Booker of Bookers(1993) awards in the west as it portrayed a "postcolonially correct" idea of India- much like the latter-day Oscar-winning film- Slumdog Millionaire! It may sound postcolonially incorrect yet it cannot be denied that Raja Rao’s Kanthapura (1938), written more than four decades before the publication of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, proudly displays all the linguistic and stylistic tricks of postmodern/postcolonial fiction and still gives an Indian reader a more holistic, more historically and morally meaningful idea of India. Similarly, Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable (1933) is still unmatched for its brilliant social and cultural critique of the Indian social order, though the writer used the avant garde stream of consciousness technique to explore the mindscape of an untouchable youth in India.

B. The God of Small Things, The Inheritance of Loss and The White Tiger: The Importance of Being the Postcolonial Indian Writer in English

Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things was the first Indian novel in English to have won a Booker award (1997). Remarkable for its haunting poetic language, stunning word play and eco-conscious imagery, the novel criticized the political misrule of the Marxists in Kerala and represented the realities of caste, class, gender and religion easily visible in Indian society. How she describes the condition of Murlidharan, a freedom fighter who worked with Subhash Chandra Bose in INA, is an example of the postcolonial treatment of a nationalist:- " Murlidharan, the level-crossing lunatic, perched cross-legged and perfectly balanced on the milestone. His balls and penis dangled down, pointing towards the sign which said: COCHIN" (p.62). Toward the end of the novel, Arundhati Roy establishes a sexual socialism in Kerala by making an untouchable Velutha love Ammu with immense passion and eroticism:-

" Ammu, naked now, crouched over Velutha, her mouth on his…. She pressed the heat of his erection against her eyelids. She tasted him, salty in her mouth….The line of down that led from her navel to her dark triangle, that told him where she wanted him to go. The inside of her legs, where her skin was softest. Then the carpenter’s hands lifted her hips and an untouchable tongue touched the innermost part of her. Drank long and deep from the bowl of her" (pp.336-37).

It is this gross exoticisation and vulgarization of complex Indian realities in the postcolonial Indian English novels that titillates the western readers’imagination and supplies them the stereotyped, orientalized image of Bharat called India.

After Arundhati Roy, it turned out to be Kiran Desai’s turn to win the Man Booker award in 2006 for her postcolonial novel- The Inheritance of Loss (2006). The perverse postcolonial portrayal of the Nepali-Gorkha diaspora shocked the readers in the subcontinent but it was an instant "hit" in the western metropolitan academy. The latest postcolonial celebrity in the select band of the Booker awardees is Arvind Adiga whose The White Tiger (2008), that narrates the rags-to-riches story of the subaltern anti-hero- Balram Halwai, won the 2008 Man Booker Award. Using the Indian subaltern anti-hero as a stereotyped "Indian" who is uncivilized, cruel and scheming in his quest of power and pelf, Adiga caters to the postcolonial hunger of the western readers whose "colonized" imagination still revels in relishing the images of the savage India peopled by millions of Balram Halwais. If profaning the sacred Indian traditions is a much- sought- after fictional fetish resorted to by the tribe of the postcolonial writers in India, Arvind Adiga is in the company of Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy and Kiran Desai in the great tradition of the postcolonial Indian English fiction. For example, Adiga makes his anti-hero Balram Halwai pay his worship to three crore sixty lac and four gods of India by "kissing 36,000,004 divine arses"!!(p.8).

One may gauge from this fragmentary and incomplete discussion of some of the celebrated postcolonial Indian English novels that the valorization of the literary works in English in the postcolonial India through government patronage, media, research publications, university-departments of English studies, lit-fests and foreign scholarships and grants results into the perpetuation of neocolonialism and cultural imperialism and the neglect of the postcolonial voices of hunger, pain, struggle suffering and protest being represented in the languages of India. At this juncture, we tend to remember what Gandhiji told us about the impact of the western civilization and the centrality of the English language in the postcolonial or post-independence India. That is why, an eminent Kannada writer, U.R. Ananthamurthy, echoes the above-cited Gandhian critique, in his essay –" Search for an Identity: A Viewpoint of a Kannada Writer" condemns the postcolonial writers and the cultural-educational institutions in India that perpetuate the oppressive dominance of the English language and literature :-

"While Indian dance and music are uniquely India, why does contemporary Indian literature take its bearing from the literature of the West? Are we really a nation of mimics, victims of English education which has conditioned the faculties of our perception so much that we fail to respond to freshly to the immediate situation in India?.... And our reaction against the West – isn’t it often emotional, while intellectually we remain bound to western modes of thought?" (p.106).

It is worth-remembering to note that neither Gandhiji nor U.R.Ananthamurthy is a conservative nativist or cultural chauvinist. Quite liberal and non-violent in their approach, they expect the writers to work for the realization of sahityik- sanskritik swaraj or literary-cultural decolonization in India in its widest sense- which is the precondition of being an equal partner in the era of globalization. If we ignore this truth, Bharat and Bharatiya Sanskriti (India and Indian culture) will continue to be stereotyped by our own postcolonial theorists and writers in their works as a "dark continent" with an attractive yet impenetrable "heart of darkness" for the consumption of the metropolitan western/westernized readers. This state of self-propelled cultural amnesia prevailing among our westernized intellectuals has been termed as "smriti-bhransha" (loss of memory) in the Gita. For example, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, an eminent postcolonial theorist, in her famous essay- ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, distorts the meaning of the Vedic mantras to suit her own "postcolonial" versions of Indian culture. Commenting on the status of women in Indian culture and society, she asserts that "the subaltern cannot speak. There is no virtue in global laundry lists with ‘woman’ as a pious term" (p.313). She claims that the custom of the widow-burning or ‘Sati-pratha’ was prevalent in Indian culture and society till India’s colonial encounter with a modern civilized west in the nineteenth century. In order to substantiate her thesis, she affirms that the Rg Veda (Chapter 10. verse, 18.7), like other Hindu dharmashastras (ethical codes), sanctions and provides the ideological or moral support to the inhumane and barbaric practice of the widow-burning. As an Indian academic and citizen, I was intrigued by Spivak’s (mis-) construction of the meaning of the Vedic verse. Translated by Ralph T.H. Griffith, the verse referred to by Spivak does not address the widows but exhorts married women and men to approach the dead person’s body to pay their obeisance:- "Let these unwidowed dames with noble husbands adorn themselves with fragrant balm and unguent/decked with fair jewels, tearless, free from sorrow, first let the dames go where he lieth.." (see sacred- texts.com/hin/rigveda/rv 10018.htm/Dated. 07.08.2011). In the subsequent mantra or verse of the Rg Veda, the Vedic rishi exhorts a widow not to burn herself on her husband’s funeral pyre but to face life and its realities squarely with exemplary courage and determination:- "Rise, come unto the world of life, O woman;/Come, he is lifeless by whose side thou liest,/ Wifehood with this thy husband was thy portion, /Who took thy hand and wooed thee as a lover." (ibid.) Where is the Vedic sanction for the sati-pratha or the widow-burning in this Rg Vedic mantra as claimed by Gayatri Spivak in her famous essay cited above? Instead of rigging the Rg Veda in order to slander the Indian culture, she should have read the following verses (Chapter 10.18.7 and 18.8) of same tenth mandala or chapter of the Rg Veda herself. The Vedic Rishi, in these verses, addresses a widow and asks her not to mourn her dead husband and advises her to perform her social and familial duties and obligations with remarkable courage, dignity and determination. Moreover, contrary to Spivak’s emphasis on the muted and silenced subjectivity of Indian women, women in the Indian tradition have immensely contributed to culture and society by "speaking" in their own voice and performing their ethical actions fearlessly. The hundreds of Indian women bhakta-poets and Buddhist women-monks including such names as Gargi, Apala, Maitreyi, Mahadeviakka, Andal, Lal Ded, Mirabai, Bahinabai and Sahajobai did speak out in protest or satyagraha against injustice and ignorance. Spivak builds up her position as a powerful postcolonial theorist/critic in the western metropolitan academy through her self-conscious vilification of the Indian culture for which she perverts the Rig-Vedic verse. Until we decolonize our minds and imbibe and practice the ethical values inscribed in Indian cultural texts/traditions, we will be led away by the power and glory of the Euro-America centric postcolonial theory and practice.


In order to assess the significance of the representations of India or Bharat, that is, the portrayal of social, political, economic and spiritual aspects of Indian culture and society, one has to look for the literary texts written in Indian languages. This is not to say that Indian writers in English are not authentic or sensitive writers. Some of them, such as Amitav Ghosh, Kaveri Nambisan, Shashi Deshpande and others, have addressed the postcolonial question in their fiction quite effectively and convincingly without pandering to the power-structures in the western academy and culture industry.

Works Cited

Rushdie, Salman. "Introduction", The Vintage Book of Indian Writing (1947-1997), Cco-edited with Elizabeth West, London, Vintage, 1997.

Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children. London, Wintage, 1995.

Ananthamurthy, U.R. " Seach for an Indian Identity" in Identity and Adulthood, Edited Sudhir Kakkar, Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1979.

Adiga, Arvind, The White Tiger, New Delhi, Harper Collins, 2008. Ashcroft, Bill, Helen Tiffin, Gareth Griffith, Key Concepts in Postcolonial Studies, London, Routledge, 1999.

Chakrabarti, Dipesh. " Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for the "Indian" Pasts?" in The Postcolonial Studies Reader, edited by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, London, Routledge, 2008.

Roy, Arundhati, The God of Small Things, New Delhi, Indiaink, 1997.

Desai, Kiran. The Inheritance of Loss. New Delhi, Penguin, 2006.

Rao Raja, Kanthapura. New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2009 (First published 1938)

Bhabha, Homi. K. The Location of Culture. London, Routledge, 1994.

Buchanan, Ian. Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory, Oxford, OUP, 2010.

Gandhi, M. K. Hind Swaraj, Ahmedabad, Navjivan, 2009

Rigveda Samhita, Volume 4, Chapters, 9-10) Ed. Pandit Shri Ram Sharma, Mathura, Yugnirman Yojan Trust, 2010, p.29.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ in C. Nelson and L. Grossberg (eds.), Marxism and The Interpretation of Culture, Basingstoke, Macmillan Education, 1988, (pp.271-313)

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

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