Essay on Modern English Literature in India

Article Posted in: Editorial Contributions

An Essay on Modern English Literature in India

By – Nidhi Sharma (Editorial Board Member at Ashvamegh)


Water water everywhere

Not a drop to drink…


This is what literature lovers feel these days. The book market is flooded with novels but those are not able to satiate their literary thirst. I am talking about the books and authors of young 21st century India. It’s certainly not about the elite literary kind, like Ashwin Sanghi, Amitav Ghosh, or Booker Prize-winning Aravind Adiga and Kiran Desai. I am talking of the books which the true readers of literature (the ones that call themselves the “elite” readers) love to hate: books with titles that contain the word “love”, or titles with spicy and colloquial words like “Oh shit!” and “Ouch!” I’m talking about the books written by 20-something authors, who have announced their presence through Rs 100 novellas at bookstores, with filmy stories that appeal to the masses, and which bear a “bestseller” tag probably since release!

Indian English literature is an honest enterprise to demonstrate the ever rare gems of Indian writing in English. English has turned out to be a new form of Indian culture and voice in which India converses regularly. While Indian literary figures – poets, novelists, essayists, dramatists – have been making momentous and considerable contributions to the world literature since the pre-Independence era, the past few years have witnessed a gigantic prospering and thriving of Indian English writing in the global market. Not only are the works of Indian authors writing in English surging on the best-seller list, they are also incurring and earning an immense amount of critical acclamation. Commencing from Mulk Raj Anand, R. K. Narayan, Anita Desai, Sarojini Naidu, Toru Dutt to Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Allan Sealy, Amitav Ghosh, Jhumpa Lahiri, Chitra Banerjee, Arundhati Roy, Vikram Chandra – the panache of these fine Indian writers is long and much augmented. Unarguably, the best and foremost Indian writer in English, R.K. Narayan’s novels, and short stories are the reasons why common middle-class Indians developed an interest in English stories. Best known for the fictional town of Malgudi, Narayan has written many fiction books including “Swami and Friends,” “The Guide,” “A Tiger for Malgudi,” “The English Teacher” etc. His most famous and most sold book is his collection of short stories is – “Malgudi Days”.

Times have changed now. Recently, I happened to come across a book.

Just one phrase — “female named Avantika”— appeared to be a far more apt synopsis of this book. It infuriated me that the book’s synopsis should refer to a girl as a “female” — a word of biology— rather than as a “girl” (or something more decent). Honestly, women have been objectified right through the history of literature, art, and in fact, the whole of civilisation — this is a social truth. I do not advocate objectification of the female gender, but certainly, I believe that many classics of literature are as flawed as these books are, in this respect. However, it must be noted, that a classic is more likely to have been written in a much more mature and artistic manner, than what the new-India books write about gender differences. While the best literature presents gender and sexuality because they are a social truth (and art is nothing but a translation of social truths into imagination), the ‘Just Anothers’ present such descriptions more because the authors want to make it interesting for the reader. That more a sophisticated reader you are, the more fashionable it is to publicly loathe such book.

I personally feel that such writers write more for market value rather than literary value. The common thought is that the ‘Yet Anothers’ write for the masses, not for literature. Their works have no value to literature. They just intend quick fame and money. They get a lot of fan following at an early age. Their books are “printed business models,” rather than works of literature.

Another thing that I notice is the idea of love in such books is misleading and least like true love, as is shown by the title of one book which claims that “I love u till I find someone better”. This is a sentiment with some basis. It is accepted that while a majority of young females fantasise of romantic love, the majority of young males spend most of their college life fantasising about girls, not romance, and sex, not love. This difference of gender is reflected in our novels. The stories of such books are often works that should rather have been movie storylines. Writing them in form of books is offensive to literature. The books are often described as “cheap” or “spicy,” and do not have anything of substance!

Let me make it clear that I consider these books similar to spicy and engaging movies, meant as a pastime — not as part of my usual reading habits. I consider myself a sophisticated reader but I do not like the idea of reading them.

I recently caught a girl of class XII reading a spicy scene in one of these kinds novels. I tried to scold her for the same but then I realised what will the students of this age do. They have a movie-like story with a lot of scope for filthy, vulgar imagination and reading. It’s easily available in understandable English, cheap in cost and to bluff parents it’s a part of their extra reading. They will never get into the web of world class literature where each and every sentence is epic written with the finest precision. I don’t and can’t blame the readers of this age.

What steps can we take to bring the same class to our Literature?

Let us not read them or call them works of literature if we do not want to, but they are works of writing. The Elite should not defame works of expression in the manner they do; they may just ignore or hate. But it is possible, that we miss out on a good work of literature on account of being judgemental about such books. Such authors might even mature gradually into classic-writers about two decades later! The point is, if one can express, they can always improve with time into the annals of sophistication. ⁠⁠⁠⁠

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