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Project Statement, Contemporary Indian Literature Project

Collaborative Project Outline by the Coordinators

Background and Research Questions

It would appear that the patterns of publishing and distribution of Indian writing in English (including English translations of writing in Indian languages) have undergone a change in the course of the last two decades. This is symptomised by the currency enjoyed by Indian literature at the present moment – in terms of its unprecedented accommodation in school and university curricula, its easy availability in both big-city and small-town libraries and book shops, and the engagement of many mainstream India-based publishers with it. In brief, it seems that a niche has been created in India for Indian writing in English, both in translation and in the original, published by Indian publishers for a predominantly Indian market - a niche that is unrelated to Anglophone Western markets. The Indian publishers involved include both Western publishers with Indian set-ups (e.g. Penguin, Harper Collins) and independent Indian publishers (e.g. Ravi Dayal, Rupa). The books promoted, as mentioned earlier, fall into two categories: original writings in English by Indian writers (like David Davidar, Anurag Mathur, Chetan Bhagat, Sarnath Bannerjee, Arundhati Roy) and writings from the Indian languages translated into English (writers like Rabindranath Tagore, Munshi Premchand, Mahesweta Devi, Vijay Tendulkar, U.R.Ananthmurthy). In India, with a social context in which English has traditionally been the language of a privileged elite, the circulation, sometimes in admirable proportions, of these categories of Indian writing in English, deserves special attention. This is a post late 1980s/early 1990s phenomenon, subsequent to the successes, via Western markets, of a Rushdie or a Ghosh or a Rohinton Mistry. Clearly a hitherto non-existent or semi-existent internal market for Contemporary Indian writing in English has now come into its own.

This is a matter of significant research interest. A range of informational and investigative issues arise from this observation which impinges upon our understanding of the state of English Studies not just in India but in other wider locations as well. Perhaps, more importantly, this observation has implications for recent developments in postcolonial studies and formulations of World Literature and in book history which call for debate and discussion.

This project will address the following questions, divided here between "Informational" and "Analytical".

Informational questions:

  1. To what extent can this change be traced in quantitative terms? This will involve collection and assessment of quantitative data: numbers of such books published in consecutive years over a period of, say twenty years; figures on publishers, outlets, output and sales, turnarounds, etc. over a similar period; distribution of these figures between Indian and international markets; etc.
  2. What sorts of developments in productive/receptive practices are discernable in this process? This will involve research on changes in norms of book design (books as physical objects); advertising and publicity; pricing; sales follow-ups, etc.
  3. What sorts of developments have occurred in the environment within which such books are circulated? This may involve research into evidence-based reading practices (the existence of market research? of reading groups?); reviewing; curricular changes in tertiary and higher education, etc.

Analytical questions:

  1. Are there characterizing features that distinguish the writing in English that is being produced by Indian writers, brought out by Indian publishers for a predominantly Indian market, from those which are mediated by a passage through Anglophone Western markets? This question of course presumes that there is some design to such a distinction if it can be discerned. Whether that is the case or not, it will be interesting to explore whether there are distinctive thematic, formal, structural, aesthetic emphases that can be arguably attached to Indian writing in English being consumed in a contained fashion within India and such writing as it goes through a more convolluted trajectory of availability through / in the West. In this context, it would be interesting to consider the career of Indian writings in English, in all its aspects, from its early post-1930s phase (through its exponency by the Raja Rao, Mulk Raj Anand, R.K. Narayan generation) through its globalization phase (represented by high-profile writers like Rushdie and Roy) to the current, at home with the home, phase. How are Indian books in English for Indian markets selected, packaged, distributed, sold and bought, canonised and so on? Are there overt or covert pressures of ideological advocacy or positioning involved in such books, especially those that have become popular? Are these reflective of contemporary Indian social organization and stratifications, Indian society in its tryst with globalisation, so to say, in traceable ways?
  2. What impact does this process have for postcolonial literary / cultural studies as that discipline has developed and been institutionalized at present? There are several specific directions that can be taken up in an ancillary fashion here.
    • One of the significant fault-lines of postcolonial literary/cultural studies has been in terms of its arena of concern – whether with the immigrant writer in Western, formerly colonising countries, or with writers within non-Western, formerly colonised countries. This has been a strand in debates from, e.g., Aijaz Ahmad’s critique of Fredric Jameson and Edward Said and immigrant postcolonial theorists in Western metropolitan universities, to, more recently, exchanges between Salman Rusdie and Amit Chaudhuri on anthologizing Indian writing. The valorization of the immigrant writer and of immigrant experience as presenting a particularly advantageous position for articulating marginal and anti-establishment politics is a familiar claim in much postcolonial theory in the West. Along with that, postcolonial studies in the Western mainstream have extended their ostensible reach by an unevenness of referencing and scrutinising of works in translation from “indigenous” languages in national contexts that are multi-lingual and not English-centred. Are the assumptions implicit in this structure of postcolonial studies disturbed by the above developments? Are the conceptual content of the term post-colonial, and the articulation of identities attached to that, under interrogation with these developments in view?
    • A consistent criticism of the manner in which canonized Indian literature in English( as well as translations of literature by Indians into English) has entered the parameters of circulation and critical examination under the aegis of postcolonial studies has been that this has involved a kind of commodification of foreignness, a cultivation of the “exotic”, a mode of neutralising the interrogative potential of marginalized literary expression. This has been formalized influentially in Graham Huggan’s The Postcolonial Exotic. How do the above developments impinge upon – fit into, undermine, or depart from – such critiques?
    • Postcolonial studies have also engendered a sustained questioning on the inclusions and exclusions of canonical formations. Is there a received canon of Anglophone postcolonial literature? - or, of Commonwealth Literature? – or, of New Literatures in English? – or, of separately Indian English Literature/Nigerian English Literature/Singaporean English Literature/etc? What directions are available in this regard given the above mentioned developments? What are the implications of the institutional prerogatives that attach to such debate, and how is that debate influenced by the noted changes?
    • Inherent in each of these are broader issues (in the sense of being of general relevance in literary studies, outside the fluid extensions and containments of postcolonial studies) -- on the nature of canonicity, on the expression and construction of identity, on the presumptions of market behaviour-- which will necessarily be tested in addressing these questions.
  3. What implications do the observations at the centre of this project have for current theorizations about the globalization of literature/formulations of “world literature”? These developments have picked up what was regarded as an idealistic horizon of literary theory (associated originally with Goethe, Tagore, Auerbach) or a misnomer for tacitly Eurocentric anthologies, and tried to give it more nuanced and pragmatic content. The impetus for attempting this comes in view of perceived globalizing processes (in an international corporate capitalist mould): technological enhancement of communication and information transmission; greater degrees of global political and economic regulation by certain alignments and consequent global awareness of the advantages and iniquities in that; international consolidation of industry (such as publishing and media industries); growing homogeneity in institutional and corporate management practices and organization (including in academia); etc. The complicities of literary production and circulation with such processes, the argument goes, requires a reorientation of literary studies away from the structuring role of national and comparative literary disciplines, from the centrality of close reading, from linguistic discreteness, perhaps even from the physical concreteness of the “book” or tangibility of “text”. Casanova’s World Republic of Letters, Franco Moretti’s New Left Review articles on world literature, Damrosch’s World Literature, Spivak’s Death of a Discipline are some instances of literary theorization which revolve notions of “world literature” in this context. The growth of Contemporary Literature in English from India for Indian readers (if that’s what is happening) lies at the crux of a paradox in this context, in that it seems to present both expansion and containment. How this phenomenon fits into or affects such re-articulations of “world literature” and the global circulatory matrix of literature is a question well worth asking.