Studying Anglo-Indian Novels: A Forgotten Genre

Ayusman Chakraborty,  Jadavpur University

The aim of this article is to introduce the students to Anglo-Indian Novels. This area of English Literature is largely neglected in schools and colleges. Though individual writers are sometimes taught, the genre as a whole receives little attention. Hence an effort has been made here to describe the genre in a few words.

What do you mean by Anglo-Indian Literature? To the uninitiated the answer might appear simple – it is the literature created by the Anglo-Indians. As examples they may cite works by Derozio or Ruskin Bond. To a student of English Literature, however, the term has a special meaning. Anglo-Indian literature was a term coined in the nineteenth century to denote English writings on India. ‘Anglo-Indian’ then was a term used to denote Englishmen and women living in India while ‘Eurasian’ was the term used for the people known today as Anglo-Indians.

Interestingly, Anglo-Indian literature in the nineteenth and early twentieth century did not refer only to works written by the Britons. Any work written in English from India was described as Anglo-Indian. Thus the works written by Indian writers like Toru Dutt, H. C. Dutt, ShosheeeChunderDutt, and Michael MadhushudanDatta fell within its ambit. Brijen K Gupta in his annotated bibliography includes even Manik Banerjee, Manoj Basu and Bonophul in his list of Anglo-Indian authors. Since 1950s the Indian authors writing in English has been classified as ‘Indo-Anglians’. As GayatriChakravortySpivak informs, “In the late 1950s, the term ‘Indo-Anglian’ was coined by the Writer’s Workshop Collective in Calcutta, under the editorship of P. Lal, to describe Indian writing in English.” (Spivak 126)

Strictly speaking, Anglo-Indian Literature is a branch of English Literature produced by Englishmen who lived in India at least for some time. It is the literature of the Empire – a product of British encounter with India. Edward Farley Oaten, one of the earliest critics of Anglo-Indian Literature, describes its origin in the following manner:

“In India for the first time since the era of Asiatic Hellenism, the spirit of Western Literature came into vital contact with the imaginativeness, dreaminess, and mysticism of the Oriental temperament. There was no real union between them; and yet it was impossible that each should remain unaffected by the other.

Such a meeting, though it was long sterile of result, could not remain permanently so. New conditions produced new emotions, and new emotions always call for new literary interpretation. And so there grew up in British India a literature, English in form and language, which is unique among the literatures of the world.” (Oaten 4)

To put it simply, Anglo-Indian Literature was born when two different spirits – that of the East and the West – came into contact. The main themes of Anglo-Indian Literature, as Oaten recognizes, are:

“The first is the ever-present sense of exile; the second an unflagging interest in Asiatic religious speculation; the third consists of the humorous sides of Anglo—Indian official life; the fourth in Indian native life and scenery; the last and perhaps most important, in the ever-varying phases, comic, tragic, or colourless of Anglo-Indian social life.” (Oaten 194 -195)

According to Oaten, Anglo-Indian Literature had its proper beginning in 1783. This was the year when Sir William Jones (1746 -1794) arrived in India. Though a few travelogues and letters were written before this period, they were devoid of any literary merit. It was Jones, who with his Hindu hymns and translations of Vishnu Purana and Kalidas’s Sakuntala, successfully inaugurated the genre. Anglo-Indian Literature had its greatest author in Rudyard Kipling (1865 – 1936), who was also the first English author to receive the Noble Prize for Literature in 1907. The first few decades of the twentieth century can be considered as the golden age of Anglo-Indian Literature. Anglo-Indian Literature died its natural death with the Independence of India and the dissolution of the British Empire. Though a few authors like Philip Mason (1906 -1999) and John Masters (1914 – 1983) continued to write after Indian independence, they were the last of their kind. Today, Anglo-Indian Literature has become a thing of the past. Works on India may still be written by British authors. But they can be no longer considered as Anglo-Indian Literature.

Anglo-Indian novel forms a branch of Anglo- Indian Literature. A brief outline of the genre is necessary. The first Anglo-Indian novel appeared as early as 1785. Anonymously published, it was entitled The Disinterested Nabob. This was followed by Hartly House in 1789. These novels centred more on Anglo-Indian life than on India proper. The first novel to successfully depict native life was written by William Browne Hockley (1792 – 1860). Hockley wrote five novels – PandurangHari (1826), Tales of the Zenana (1827), The English in India (1828),The Vizer’s Son (1831), andThe Memoirs of a Brahmin or the Fatal Jewels (1843). He was followed by Philip Meadows Taylor (1808 -1876) whose novels – The Confessions of a Thug (1839), TippooSultaun(1840), Tara (1864), Ralph Darnell(1865), Seeta (1872), and the posthumously published A Noble Queen (1878) – set the standard for the later writers. Among Taylor’s immediate descendants, mention must be made of Alexander Allardyce (1846 -1896) who wrote The City of Sunshine (1877), George Tomkyns Chesney (1830 -1895) who wrote The Dilemma (18) and H. S. Cunningham (1832 -1920) who wrote The Chronicles of Dustypore (1875). The last decades of the nineteenth century saw the rise of two great authors – Flora Annie Steel (1847 – 1927) and Rudyard Kipling. From the point of popularity they were the first successful Anglo-Indian authors. They were followed by a host of writers among whom the important ones are Maud Divers (1867 – 1945), Bithia Mary Croker (1849 -1920), and Edmund Candler (1874 – 1926). In 1924 E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India was published, which may be considered as the last Anglo-Indian classic. Anglo-Indian novelists continued to write after the Independence of India. Philip Mason and John Masters are the most important authors of this period.

It should be noted that the account given above provides only a sketch of Anglo-Indian novels. It is not possible to do justice to the subject in a small article, the proper exposition of which will fill volumes. Interested readers are advised to peruse the works given in the bibliography.

In his classic study entitled The British Image of India Allen J. Greenberger identifies three periods of Anglo-Indian novels, which he names the Era of Confidence (1880 – 1910), the Era of Doubt (1910 – 1935), and the Era of Melancholy (1935 – 1960). The authors writing during the first period had faith in themselves as the ruling race. They valued British civilization and thought that the Empire was meant to be permanent. This attitude began to change during the Era of Doubt. The novelists of this period became increasingly less confident. Greenberger divides them into three groups. There were those who still supported the Empire and reacted aggressively to Indian nationalism. Another group hated the Empire and attacked it in their writings. The third group stood between the two extremes. During the third period or the Era of Melancholy the writers became convinced that the Empire was at an end. Their writings were filled with nostalgic recollections of the good old days of the Empire. Though the attitude of the writers changed with age, their writings had one thing in common. Greenberger explains:

“The emphasis is always on England rather than on India. It is events in England, and the West in general, which determine the image held of India at any particular time.” (Greenberger 6)

Greenberger’s division of Anglo-Indian novel into periods is certainly helpful. However, his study does not take into consideration all those authors who wrote in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Following Greenberger, we may call this period the ‘Era of Romance’. To the novelists writing during this period India appeared as a land of romance where anything was possible. They were fascinated with the country and their writings reflect this fascination. Interestingly many novels of this period are completely free from British presence. Taylor’s Tara, Captain Rafter’s Savindroog, and James Blythe Paton’s Bijli the Dancer may be taken as examples. British characters play a peripheral role in most of the novels of Hockley, except English in India. This is a unique feature of the novels of this period. As the British Empire consolidated, the Anglo-Indian authors became more obsessed with themselves. Hence the Indians were relegated to a secondary position in most of their novels.

Another notable feature of the novels of this period has been identified by Susanne Howe. Howe points out that in the twentieth century novels homesickness becomes an obsession. She writes:

 “Nowhere in literature, one is tempted to believe, is Home spelt with a larger capital letter. These Anglo-Indian novels contain some of the most shameless exploitations of nostalgia that can be used deliberately to sicken the heart and play upon the sympathy of the reader. From being merely a common human emotion, homesickness in India becomes a prevailing disease, almost a neurosis.” (Howe 34)

This element of homesickness is absent in earlier novels. Hence Howe calls this period “the Happy Years” of Anglo-Indian novels. (Howe 39)

Of all the different branches of Anglo-Indian Literature, it is the novel whose production has been most prolific. Indeed critics old and new – like Sir Alfred ComynLyall, Bhupal Singh, Susanne Howe, and Allen J. Greenberger – have studied the novel to the exclusion of everything else. This does not mean that these critics are content with the quality of the production. On the contrary, many of them have expressed their disappointment with the Anglo-Indian novel. As Susanne Howe remarks, “Novels about India provide more vicarious discomfort than anyone is entitled to. They are among the unhappiest books in the language.” (Howe 32)

Critics have put forward various reasons to account for the banality of Anglo-Indian novels. It has been argued that Anglo-Indian novels are parochial in nature. Obsessed with depicting Indian experiences the novelists neglected contemporary concerns. This in turn estranged the common readers who could not find anything interesting in their novels. Moreover, the British public were profoundly uninterested in all things Indian. Susanne Howe believes that India induced a “defeatist state of mind” in the Englishmen. (Howe 37) They were not prepared to take up the challenge of understanding a society as complex as India. Sir Alfred ComynLyall, himself an Anglo-Indian author, explains:

“For the modern reader will have nothing to do with a story full of outlandish schemes and characters; he must be told what he thinks he knows; he must be able to realize the points and the probabilities of a plot and of its personages; he wants a tale that falls more or less within his ordinary experience, or that tallies with his preconceived notions. Accordingly, any close description of native Indian manners or people is apt to lose interest in proportion as it is exact; its value as a painting of life is usually discernible only by those who know the country.” (Lyalln.p.)

Edward Farley Oaten points out another reason for the unpopularity of Anglo-Indian novels. He argues that in depicting native life, the Anglo-Indian novelists have described either too much or too little. Theirs was a course running between “the Scylla of didactic dullness and the Charybdis of unintelligibility”. (Oaten 142) Most Anglo-Indian novelists fell a victim to either of the two. Their works suffered as a result.

To contemporary readers, Anglo-Indian novels are likely to appear onerous. Often such novels ran into multi-volumes, severely trying the reader’s patience. Leaving aside the works of luminaries like Kipling, Forster, and John Masters, the prose in which these novels are written are generally stifled and antiquated. The racism expressed in most of these novels also makes them unsavoury. Common readers cannot be blamed for feeling revulsion towards the Anglo-Indian novels.

To a student of Literature and History, however, the study of Anglo-Indian novels becomes interesting for its own sake. This is because such novels provide us with a wealth of information regarding the colonial period. Often they highlight the politics and praxis of colonial rule. Greenberger points out three reasons for studying the Anglo-Indian novels. He states that these novels formed a major source of information on India to the reading public of Britain. In this way they created a body of knowledge in India. Secondly, many of the writers gave a broad picture of how the people in general were thinking at a given time. To a student of history such information is very valuable. Thirdly, these novels influenced the way Englishmen saw India. Greenberger shows how the image of India created by Anglo-Indian authors influenced race relations both in India and in England. (Greenberger 1-2)

The Anglo-Indian novels also document how the Indians responded to the colonial rule. According to Nancy L. Paxton, Anglo-Indian novels are more open to “heteroglossia” than the metropolitan novels of the same period. (Paxton 27) Heteroglossia (raznorecie) is a concept taken from the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin. Bakhtin shows that the novel as a genre is dialogic in nature. That is, a novel contains “a diversity of individual voices, artistically organized”. (Bakhtin 262) These voices represent different ideological positions which may be contradictory to the author’s professed ideological position. This property of the Novel enables us to be attentive to the voices of the Indians in the Anglo-Indian novels. This does not mean that Anglo-Indian novelists are sympathetic to these voices. On the contrary, they often try to marginalize and repress them. However, as students of Literature it is our job to hear and redeem these voices of the past.

Anglo-Indian Novels thus provide us with an interesting field of study and research. Though individual authors like Kipling and Forster have received fair share of attention from critics, the older writers like Hockley and Taylor remain neglected till date. As students of English Literature it is our job to rescue these authors from the limbo of oblivion and to assign them their proper place within the canon of English Literature.

Bibliography

Bakhtin, M.M. The Dialogic Imagination. Trans. Caryl Emerson and MichaelHolquist. Austin: University of Texas Press,1981. Print.
Greenberger, Allen J. The British Image of India: A Study in the Literature of Imperialism 1880 -1960. London: Oxford University Press, 1969. Print.
Howe, Susanne. Novels of Empire. New York: Columbia University Press, 1949. Print.
Lyall, Alfred Comyn. “The Anglo-Indian Novelist”. In Studies in Literature and History. London: John Murray, 1915. Print.
Oaten, Edward Farley. A Sketch of Anglo-Indian Literature. London: Kegan Paul Trench Trubner& Co., 1908. Print.
Sencourt, Robert. India in English Literature. Port Washington: Kennikat Press, 1923. Print.
Singh, Bhupal. A Survey of Anglo-Indian Fiction. London: Oxford University Press, 1934. Print.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravarty. “How to read a culturally different book”. The Spivak Reader. London: Psychology Press, 1996. Print.

Ayusman Chakraborty is currently working as a Senior Research Fellow of the Department of English, Jadavpur University. For his doctoral degree, he is researching on the life and works of the nineteenth century colonial administrator Captain Philip Meadows Taylor. Contact: hinduayusman@gmail.com

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