Rositta Joseph Valiyamattam
Personal and National Destinies in Independent India:
A Study of Selected Indian English Novels
Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 2016
Pp 306 | HB | £ 57.99
On the perils of summarisation
Much, perhaps, has been lost in the tussle of content with form which has been giving direction to the trajectories of English literary criticism and pedagogy in the Indian academe in recent times. One of the unfortunate consequences of the postcolonial turn in contemporary scholarship has been to normalise a neglect of the canon, and those modes of study which were associated with engagement with the canon. Insular, close readings of texts and of literary devices, forms, and narrative structures are passé, as thousands of students discover every year in classrooms: one must contextualise, and delineate themes in keeping with texts’ conversations with their backgrounds.
Two apparently unrelated phenomena may be traced to this inflection of Indian pedagogy and scholarship with cultural material and postcolonialism – and in the rare instance postmodernism. On one hand, there is a widespread dearth of academics with a semblance of expertise in the canon, and with the happy habit of textual analysis. On the other, a considerable amount of contemporary scholarship seems to be operating within a more or less purely contextual groove: comment on thematic concerns and their localisation in socio-economic matrices have almost completely sidelined textual study.
An example of this is the monograph under consideration, Personal and National Destinies in Independent India: A Study of Selected Indian English Novels. Emergent from Rositta Joseph Valiyamattam’s doctoral research, this study considers eleven contemporary novels1 to delineate the interweaving of personal destinies of protagonists across a wide social and historical spectrum with the evolving destiny of India as a young nation-state. These novels are: Gurcharan Das’ A Fine Family (1990), Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance (1996), Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997), Kiran Desai’s Inheritance of Loss (2006), Meher Pestonji’s Pervez – a Novel (2003), David Davidar’s The Solitude of Emperors (2007), Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (2008), Vikas Swarup’s Q&A (2005) and Six Suspects (2008), Tarun Tejpal’s The Story of My Assassins (2009), Manjula Padmanabhan’s Escape (2008), and Arun Joshi’s The City and the River (1990). The comment is spread across seven chapters, chapter one and seven being Introduction and Conclusion respectively while chapters two to six are chronologically arranged from the Partition to India as it is today and might be in the decades to come.
Unfortunately, even though Valiyamattam acknowledges working across this broad and disparate canvas was a challenge, she does not give a convincing rationale for her choice of novelists and novels: these are all, apparently, texts “wherein the life-histories of the individual and the nation-state are woven together” (p 2), but one cannot help wonder if this is also not the case with scores of other contemporary Indian novels in English as well. The five main chapters, two to six respectively, are chronologically divided to address the main framing preoccupations of India as a nation, though one cannot but be uncomfortable with the wide, grand sweeps of opinion which Valiyamattam enacts through this division. Chapter three, for instance, is titled “The Regional Microcosm: Turbulent Geopolitics (1960-1990)” and comments on The God of Small Things, while chapter two, “From Partition and Independence to the Emergency (1947-1975),” includes A Fine Balance: the former is located predominantly in the 1960s, while the latter, A Fine Balance, stretches from 1975 to the mid-1980s.
However, even if this vexed issue of primary sources was put aside, methodology too seems unsatisfactory. Clubbing together all of these novels with their various narrative styles and political concerns puts considerable methodological and structural pressure on the analysis, but Valiyamattam’s response is to turn to content and context at the cost of form. Her aim, as she outlines in the Introduction, is to show how individuals have contributed to – and have been shaped by – larger socio-economic forces in their times, and how the literary representation of these interactions allows one to understand India better (2). Accordingly, the novelistic text is treated as a historical document which speaks the story of India and of various Indians from the Partition to the present.
Such an approach beggars serious interrogation. Are literary texts just historical documents which mirror lived realities? Is the nation wholly a priori as a political and economic entity, and is the history of a nation like India reducible to broad epochal sweeps and concerns? Literature, of course, acts as a historical source, and one would have been glad to see Valiyamattam destabilising the certitudes of history and of the idea of sources by delving a little on narrative as a practice or as a technique. What her analysis presumes, however, is a straightforward correlation between history and literature: history, modern Indian history, is given and known, as are its sources, and so literature on – or related to – this history is only a reflection, an aesthetic re-presentation of known events shaping imaginary lives. Instead of justifying her methodology in the Introduction Valiyamattam hurriedly expands upon political theory and modern Indian history and performs a breathless review of Indian writing in English from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century2. She launches thereafter into her chronological analysis, laboriously summarising major national events and identifying them as formative influences in the novels, attempting thus to chart a symbiotic telos for India as a nation and Indian writing in English as a genre.
Sadly, neither kind of summarisation – of history or of literature – seems to hold. As section after section passes with the linking of national events with novelistic plots, the reader may be lulled into an illusion of a master plan, a grand design linking Indian history to Indian literature. Recurring gaps in the comment, however, remind one of the text’s methodological and critical blindness: the text reads like a paean to all the authors and their novels, with almost every possible aspect of their work being lauded. A range of platitudes reign as scholarship: “the democratic ethos of the freedom struggle and the heroism of the commoners salvaged the future of India” (57), “the sole ray of hope is the citizen who soldiers on” (104), “India symbolises the hopes of mankind for one humane world” (279), and so on. In some instances the critique becomes excessively autobiographical3, while in some it becomes purely political4. Rarely does it remember to dwell on matters of form and aesthetics, and when it does it is – again – as unsubstantiated pronouncements: “earnest portrayal of life in the Indian capital Delhi” (167), “an entertaining medley of styles” (194), “the language is simple and lucid and the emotion is genuinely soul-stirring” (233), etc. This seems unsurprising when the shoddiness of secondary research is taken into account: not a little of the analysis, for instance, is premised on blurbs on book jackets and extracts from authors’ websites, and annotation is palpably conspicuous by its absence throughout the text. These laxities are complemented by a curious editorial and proofing indifference: grammatical and formatting errors abound, making reading through the text a task. The publisher seems to also have forgotten to specify the price of the book either in it or on the jacket, and the price of £57.99 listed on their website is nothing short of exorbitant.
One could have expected much from a study of this kind, but the text consistently disappoints on almost all counts. As such, this monograph reads like a rushed summary of almost a dozen disparate novels and how they incorporate events of national importance in their plot rather than a considered literary comment on the conversation between politics, history, memory, and Indian writing in English. Excessive summation, hazy methodology, and bad production effectively cull the potential which a work of this kind could have realised. That the reader is constantly forced to search for the literary in the analysis may be yet another stark reminder of the direction which English literary studies in the subcontinent is taking, and of the necessity of urgently applying correctives.
1. Contemporary here is framed as beginning from 1991, the initiation of economic liberalisation and globalisation.
2. Similarly, the text ends with four appendices containing the photographs of the novelists, of the Preamble of the Constitution of India, and of Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech, and a remarkably truncated timeline of major events in post-Independence India.
3. “On the whole, the character of Arjun represents Das while Maneck Kolah represents Mistry” (Valiyamattam 57).
4. “The novelists [Roy and Desai] attempt to bridge a divided world, deconstruct power structures, and seek justice for the marginalised” (Valiyamattam 104).