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COLUMN: The growth of Orwell’s strange phenomenon

August 31, 2014

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ZULFIKAR GHOSE is a poet, novelist and literary critic. Apart from criticism and poetry, he has also penned many novels, including the trilogy, The Incredible Brazilian. He is Professor Emeritus in the English Department at the University of Texas at Austin.
ZULFIKAR GHOSE is a poet, novelist and literary critic. Apart from criticism and poetry, he has also penned many novels, including the trilogy, The Incredible Brazilian. He is Professor Emeritus in the English Department at the University of Texas at Austin.

DURING the first half of the 20th century when the British still ruled India, they conditioned us natives to believe that laudable though some of our performers in their traditional activities were, of course no Indian could match their own excellence in any field of which they were the originators and in which they considered themselves to be the unassailable masters. They seemed surprised that an Indian could write a line of verse or a novel, and when one did in an accomplished style, the best praise the English could give the work was that it appeared to have been written by an Englishman, no doubt believing such a commendation to be an expression of lavish generosity and not an insult.

I was reminded of this when I googled Mulk Raj Anand to check the dates of his novels. As if to highlight his distinction, the Wikipedia article quoted from a seemingly favourable review written by George Orwell of Anand’s 1942 novel, The Sword and the Sickle. Looking up the review, reprinted in Orwell’s Collected Essays, I saw that, writing it during the Second World War when Indian intellectuals were ambiguous in their support of the British, with some even seeing the Japanese as potential liberators from the oppressive imperialists, Orwell had embedded his apparent praise of Anand’s novel in an essay about the advantages of the English language as a propaganda tool.

Beginning by noting that the British possessed a significant weapon in the English language because it had gained widespread international usage, Orwell then stated, “Therefore, although Mr Anand’s novel would still be interesting on its own merits if it had been written by an Englishman, it is impossible to read it without remembering every few pages that it is also a cultural curiosity.”

Still be interesting … if it had been written by an Englishman. No doubt Orwell considered that high praise to bestow on an Indian. But if that is not insulting enough, he adds the phrase about it being a cultural curiosity which, seeming to be an objective statement by a sympathetic reader, quietly consigns the book to a dustbin labelled ‘foreign freaks’.

Orwell next states: “The growth, especially during the last few years, of an English-language Indian literature is a strange phenomenon”, and though he adds a remark about that literature’s expected effect on the post-war world, I stop there, stung by that scorpion-tailed strange phenomenon. I don’t believe I’m imagining I hear a culturally curious dismissive tone in that strange and nor am I being paranoiac in feeling like an untouchable being condescended to by a Brahmin high priest.

After referring to the general content of Anand’s novel, Orwell remarks that when he reads the work of Indian writers like Anand and Ahmed Ali he has a sense that their use of English seems to be “another dialect”, not the English written by his countrymen. His quotation from Anand supports his criticism. That’s fair enough, though I think the same English eyebrows could be raised at the English written by American and Australian writers who for some reason are exempt from such criticism. Orwell then speculates that in a future free India English “might survive, in dialect form, … but it is difficult to believe that it has a literary future.” Writers like Anand and Ahmed Ali, he says, “are not likely to have many successors.” They have been useful in “interpreting Asia to the west” and may be considered important because “they act as a westernising influence among their own countrymen.” In brief, they are to be patted on the head by the Angrez Sahib for having transmitted what he sees as useful propaganda, but as for any literature coming from Indians after their independence from British rule, forget it, the chaps can’t write proper English.

In all fairness to Orwell, I should state that he was writing when the Second World War was at its height and he was in charge of broadcasting propaganda to India before he resigned from the B.B.C. in November 1943, frustrated, as he stated in his letter of resignation, that “the broadcasting of propaganda to India is an almost hopeless task”. What shocks me, however, is that a writer of his genius should not evaluate a work of literature objectively to see how it measures against the most accomplished work of the past but is persuaded by the author’s foreignness to corrupt his perception and sees only a degraded version of what he assumes would have been a pristine product if written by an Englishman. As one of the successors to Mulk Raj Anand and Ahmed Ali from the old India, I have, it seems, mistakenly harboured the delusion that I was making a contribution to English literature when I was merely part of a malignant growth of some strange phenomenon, and I see myself staring at a big black mole disfiguring white skin.

Perhaps I am over-reacting. But let me present the case of two contemporaries of Mulk Raj Anand, one who published a conventional novel and the other in the best tradition of the European avant-garde, and both though originally well received in England have now receded to some misty margin. The first is Attia Hosain (1913-1998) whose Sunlight on a Broken Column was published in London in 1961, soon forgotten, and then, in the wake of the Feminist revolution, reissued by Virago in 1988. First, let me confess to my critical bias that rejects as inconsequential novels written with no regard to their formal structure but thoughtlessly repeat a worn-out formulaic pattern. Hosain writes in the traditional form of the popular novel that the majority of the reading public has favoured since the 18th century for its easy readability and simplistic pretension to sociological seriousness. To most readers, the structure of her first sentence will look comfortingly familiar: “The day my aunt Abida moved from the zenana into the guest-room off the corridor that led to the men’s wing of the house, within call of her father’s room, we knew Baba Jan had not much longer to live.” It’s the widely used time-place-people formula that stimulates a gossipy expectation of emotional tension, with the words zenana and “Baba Jan” thrown in to add an authentic tasting sociological flavour.

Some 300 pages later, the novel ends with the heroine saying, “I have been waiting for you, Asad. I am ready to leave now.” All tension is over, a happy ending is at hand, no need to cry any more, there is to be a wedding. Death at the beginning, marriage at the end, the usual drama in the middle that most readers can “relate to”, that lowest of lowbrow levels at which to read a novel, this is formula fiction at its mechanical best running on well-oiled clichés, stylistically no different from the work of such hack writers of that time as Graham Greene and Kingsley Amis for whom, too, the novel’s artistic potential — demonstrated, for example, by Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927) — meant nothing. And indeed, even Orwell’s 1934 novel, Burmese Days, important for its subject-matter and containing far superior prose than Forster’s A Passage to India (1924), is written by a journalist who knows his sources, not by a novelist who knows his art.

But let me suspend my critical bias which favours form and style over the always transitory interest of subject-matter, wear my creative-writing professor’s objective spectacles, and give Sunlight on a Broken Column an impartial evaluation. It is a well-crafted story about the decline of the Muslim feudal class in the decades leading to the partition of India. The story is told by the orphaned Laila, the novel’s heroine, whose narrative begins when she is 15 and living in her grandfather Baba Jan’s house. As the head of one of the distinguished feudal families, the rich descendents of Mughal patronage who were favoured by the British in their elaborate design to foster resentment and enmity among Indians of different religions and social classes to keep them divided, Baba Jan’s death can be seen as symbolic of the passing of the old India. Hosain knows her subject like one who has lived that history, her characters are real people of whom the older generation desperately attempts to hold on to its ancient privileges while the young are shown to be excited by progressive ideas for a free India, and Hosain’s presentation of that society creates the forceful impression of autobiographical truth; there is a serious historical dimension to her narrative, for what is ending is not just the British Raj but the last, lingering remnants of the defeated Mughal Empire now about to be made extinct in a new India.

All that Lucknowi elegance, the beautifully enunciated high-class Urdu, the Cam­b­ridge educated young men with their enlightened European ideas who added another layer of sophistication to that superior society, which so nourished the aspirations of Indian Muslims that it was considered a high distinction for their sons in the rest of India to be admitted to Aligarh University, all of that is vividly captured in Attia Hosain’s novel. As a portrait of that society, which can also be seen as mirroring late Mughal decadence while at the same time projecting a regenerated future in which this polished and enlightened social class could have played a leadership role in a free secular India, Sunlight on a Broken Column is indeed an important novel. Limited though it is by the traditional form, Hosain’s treatment of her subject is enlivened by some excellent descriptive prose, which is full of details observed with such sharp precision that her world springs alive in the reader’s senses. Considered thus, it is a novel from which one acquires a keen understanding of a crucial period of Indian history while being emotionally engaged with real-life characters and then being deeply moved by the final post-Partition section.

Many a novelist from India and Pakistan has succeeded Attia Hosain with well-crafted popular novels about South Asian socio-political reality and enriched what has become a category all its own; her novel stands out at the head of that group, and of the traditional 20th-century novels set in India — including those by E. M. Forster and Paul Scott — Sunlight on a Broken Column is much to be admired. Its imagery comes from a wounded soul that has been cast out of paradise, giving it a depth of feeling beside which the other novelists seem mere journalists exploiting an interesting subject-matter.

The title is a line from a T. S. Eliot poem, but it’s not idly chosen. Remember Ashoka’s Pillars, remember the Qutb Minar, proud monuments of a nation, columns that stood beaming edicts, wisdom and beauty across the subcontinent. Alas, now comes 1947, and the column is broken. But sunlight still falls on it. If novels were mere sociological documents that served the purpose of realistically portraying society, capturing the manners and idiosyncrasies of a particular group at a given time, then Sunlight on a Broken Column is undoubtedly excellent. Indeed, of all the 20th-century novels in the traditional form of which the larger subject behind the surface story is India, and that includes the one by Forster, Attia Hosain’s should be the first to be read. Its claim is to the seriousness of content, not of art.

A novel with any pretension to seriousness is written in a language that has its own peculiar ring that keeps resonating after its surface rendering of reality has been transmitted, so that the communicated cognition exceeds what is literally understood and the substance of the story conveys an intimation of a deeper knowledge. G. V. Desani’s All About H. Hatterr is one such novel. First published in London in 1948, All About H. Hatterr enjoyed a temporary success and then fell into neglect from which it has not been rescued by attempts to reissue it, including an edition with a very fine Introduction by Anthony Burgess, who states that “it is the language that makes the book, a sort of creative chaos” and speculates whether its neglect was not due to “the difficulty of classifying the book”. Perhaps that’s a polite way of saying that Desani (1909-2000), a Kenyan-born Indian, could hardly be expected to write an original novel using English as it had never been used before. But that is exactly what Desani did. If we read it today without regard to the author’s nationality (in this supposedly enlightened age with its boastful espousal of diversity), All About H. Hatterr would be considered one of the original masterpieces of English literature produced during the period that includes Virginia Woolf, Joyce, Beckett and Flann O’Brien.

Indeed, Burgess in his Introduction calls All About H. Hatterr a masterpiece similar to O’Brien’s At Swim-Two Birds and makes a comparative reference to Joyce’s Ulysses. It is praise that is fully merited, for Desani’s novel has the originality of language, which is heard as a unique form of English speech, bizarre and yet entirely credible in its vocabulary and rhythm, that is the hallmark of literary excellence. With such a work, the question as to what it is about is irrelevant: as with music and the visual arts, the real experience afforded by a literary work is an abstract intellectual apprehension that, being triggered by style, is unrelated to the literal meaning of the words. All that needs to be said is that the story level is absorbing throughout as H (for ‘Hindustaaniwalla’) Hatterr goes seeking wisdom from seven sages, and while one enjoys the high entertainment that the language conveys in Desani’s oddly configured style, behind it all there is a sense of that puzzling metaphysical wonder which is like a highly charged live current in all works of art.

It’s conceivable that Desani and Hosain would not have been so neglected had their names not relegated them to the ‘strange phenomenon’ category. Even as late as 1975, by when several of us from the subcontinent had been published in London, my editor at Macmillan, who had published seven of my books by then, wondered if their poor sale was not due to my foreign name and wondered if an Anglo-Saxon pseudonym might not do the trick. Perhaps. But that was a period when the Civil Rights and Feminist movements were spreading a liberating humanism across America and Europe, and the notion of ethnic diversity was becoming a universal virtue. A technological revolution was afoot, reading habits were changing. The early 20th century’s passion for new art forms that had made Picasso, Stravinsky and Joyce into minor deities was about to end with the triumph of capitalism that substituted aesthetic value with commercial value. One did not have to be a Desani to be consigned to oblivion; it was the fate, too, of the native-born English. One example: a beautifully written and intellectually engrossing novel like To the Hermitage by Malcolm Bradbury managed to get published before the curtain fell on “literary” fiction and it soon fell into neglect. Therefore, it is simplistic to suggest that being pushed to the misty margin is a fate reserved for foreigners. Now we are all a strange phenomenon growing like fungi in the unweeded garden gone aesthetically to seed.