Commonwealth Literature And

Cultural Assimilation




Commonwealth literature is a new phenomenon. But the concept of a commonwealth is very old. Shakespeare, through Gonzalo in The Tempest, refers to the commonwealth where peace and plenty will prevail and nature brings forth “all foison, all abundance / To feed” the “innocent people”. It will be a golden age when common good and public interest will flourish. Milton repeatedly affirms that commonwealth is the best form of government. In March 1660, knowing full well that monarchy will be reestablished a few months later, Milton publishes the pamphlet The ready and easy way to establish a free commonwealth. Milton’s commonweahh is intended to produce citizens who are complete and integrated human beings, and it is the “most magnanimous, most fearless, and confident of its own proceedings”.1 But the Commonwealth of Nations comes into being with India and other colonial countries becoming free after 1947. So literature produced especially in the last forty years acquires a relevance and authenticity by reproducing the aspirations and cultural heritage of the developing nations. Commonwealth literature also signifies a fusion of cultures, of the East and the West, for most of these countries have their own languages and English is not their mother-tongue. Barring Canada, Australia and New Zealand where English is spoken and written, in India and other countries of the Commonwealth, English does not figure as the sole process of communication in public or private life.


So the question arises, why should anyone write in English? Often it may look odd for the writer is writing in English for a reading public that may not speak or think in English And the writer himself writes in a language that is not his own. For Naipaul the continued use of English in India for creative and other purposes is mimicry of the West and an “act of self­violation”. (Area of Darkness, p. 215) True, even the writer himself may feel the absurdity of the situation. As Raja Rao states, “One has to convey in a language that is not one’s own the spirit that is one’s own”.2 But a creative writer, a poet, a novelist or a dramatist, writes primarily for his own aesthetic pleasure. He writes because he must. That is a compulsion, an irresistible urge to say something that is meaningful and valuable for the ennoblement and enrichment of man. He thinks he has an inner prompting to reveal his mind, and the language he chooses for expression is his own choice. It is a language in which he feels proficient, at ease with himself. So it is immaterial whether he writes in English or in his own native language. The significance lies in the portrayal of life, in giving to his work an acceptability and a universality.


Most of these creative writers especially in their first novels seem to face this problem of writing in English, and yet making it somehow different from English-English. Achbe’s first novel Things Fall Apart recreates the traditional Ibo life by using several African words transformed into English. In No longer at ease Achbe deals with the transition from colonial rule to freedom. Arrow of God presents the colonial onslaught on traditional tribal life. So Achbe is committed to his native African tradition. N. S. Naipaul in his first novel The Mystic Masseur uses the type of English that is spoken by the East Indian immigrants in Trinidad. The dialogues invariably smack of colloquialism with no respect for grammar or for the essential structural formations of English. Expressions like “I says” figure often. This may be called broken English. All the same, we follow the thematic content of the metamorphosis of Ganesh from a primary school teacher to a statesman, from “Pundit Ganesh Ramsumair” to “G. Ramsay Muir.” Human aspirations are the same, East or West, and we understand and appreciate the writer’s presentation of life. Naipaul’s best novel A house for Mr. Biswas avoids the colloquial expressions to a large extent. It is like History of Mr. Polly with the struggle of a man towards a better life. The novel presents the quest for identity.


Indian writing in English has come of age. Fiction especially forms the major part of this literature. It is the most powerful and popular form of writing. The fore-runners of this Indo-­Anglian novel, Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao and Narayan, “the Big Three” as William Walsh calls them, had the same difficulty faced by Achbe, Naipaul and others writing in English, even though English is not their language. Mulk Raj Anand in his first novel Untouchable coins words from Punjabi and Hindustani in order to give to his novel an authenticity and remoteness from civilised life as the untouchable is. Anand says, “I would transliterate dialogue almost literally from the original speech and I would, consciously find myself interweaving feelings, emotions, moods, and thoughts, from my mother-tongue into the texture of the narrative”.3 Swear words, epithets and Punjabi phrases remarkably fit into the realistic world of the untouchables. Social realism and a commitment to a political philosophy of liberalism make us ignore the tapestry of coined words in this novel. Anand’s next novel, Coolie, may still have the Punjabi words transliterated but it does not have so many swear words as The Untouchable. The Coolie is again a presentation of the underdog in society and novel is in the Picaresque tradition where the protagonist moves from place to place experiencing unexpected trials and tribulations. It is a tale of untold misery too and for tears. Anand deals with the elemental passions of humanity in his first two novels.


Anand’s experiment with English is a novelty and an innovation. He says,


“I hope that my expressions in writing the new language, Indian English ...will come to be read by Indian students of the English language. This may help to show why Indian English, different from the sister languages of our country as well as from English, is yet an attempted fusion of the both. It is a metamorphosis, which is as significant as Irish English, or Welsh English or Australian English”.4


Anand visualises the blending of languages. In fact English serves not only as a link language, but also as a link literature, in the present day India.


Raja Rao in his Foreword to his first novel Kanthapura emphatically pleads for an English suited to an Indian sensibility. He says,


“We are instinctively bilingual, many of us writing in our own language and in English. We cannot write like the English, we should not, we can write only as Indians. We have grown to look at the large world as a part of us. Our method of expression, therefore, has to be a dialect which will some day prove to be as distinctive and colourful as the Irish or the American. Time alone will justify it.”


Raja Rao in his first novel Kanthapura coins several Indian words and the tell tale names in this novel like “Waterfall Venkamma”, “Nose scratching Najamma,’, “Corner house Moorthy” amuse us. They have a musical effect, and on the whole they give us an atmosphere of an Indian village. Raja Rao’s next novel The Serpent and the Rope still may have some typical Indian expressions, but its style is poetic, evocative and full of incantation. It is the language of the heart, and like Wordsworth’s poetry, a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings and emotions. In this novel Raja Rao upholds the Brahminic tradition with gusto and involvement for he says through Rama that a Brahmin is one who knows Brahman. It looks as though Raja Rao revels in the glory of the Brahminic culture. In this respect Samskara is an antithesis to The Serpent and the Rope for in this novel, the degenerate, decadent Brahminic ritualism figures almost as a nauseating, disgusting experience of the writer himself. It fills us with revulsion, for the stupidity of the Acharya in this novel is abominable. Presumably the two novels present two different aspects of the Brahminic tradition, one glorifying it, another disglorifying it. The truth may lie somewhere in between. In fact The Serpent and the Rope is no novel. It is an epic in prose like Fielding’s Joseph Andrews and it has episodes also. Rama of The Serpent and the Rope is like the unheroic hero Tom Jones whom Fielding would justify on the basis of romantic morality as contrasted with the classical morality in Richardson’s Pamela. Unlike the masculine vigour of Anand’s prose style, Raja Rao’s style is poetic and metaphysical. His Cat and Shakespeare is as mystifying as his Comrade Kirilov.


R. K. Narayan does not seem to have much of difficulty in making his characters speak in English. Narayan’s English is simple, direct and homely. He feels that English has flexibility. He says,


“We are still experimentalists ... we are not attempting to write Anglo-Saxon English. The English language, through sheer resilence and mobility, is now undergoing a process of Indianisation, In the same manner as it adopted U. S. citizenship over a century ago, with the difference that it is the major language there, but here one of the fifteen”.5


R. K. Narayan is at his best in story-telling. He weaves a story based on the simple vocations in life, a vendor of sweeets, a banyan tree, financial expert, a guide, a painter of signs. Like the Wessex novels of Thomas Hardy, Narayan has his Malgudi novels. Even though Malgudi may be a fictitious place, yet it definitely gives us a South Indian habitat and a location Almost all his novels end on a cynical note. Jagan, the vendor of sweets, goes into a retreat, far from the madding crowd. Margayya the financial expert ends in bankruptcy, all hopes of becoming rich foiled. Raju the guide has to be martyred whether he likes it or not. Vasu, the power-hungry taxidermist, an embodiment of evil, in The Man eater of Malgudi is overpowered by his own excesses like Bhasmasura, and evil redounds on itself. Narayan in A Tiger for Malgudi prsents Raju the tiger with an excellent under­standing of the animal world. It only shows that Narayan can handle any theme with ease and felicity and give to his readers an inexplicable aesthetic pleasure.


Like the novelists mentioned above Kamala Markandeya too faces the problem in her first nelvel Nectar in a Sieve. As it deals with village life in India. naturally it has to incorporate within itself many expressions borrowed from the Indian language. Kamala Markandeya literally translates the speeches of the characters from the local language. Nectar in a Sieve portrays rural India with sympathetic imagination. This novel is often compared with Good Earth because both the novels deal with the simple lives of the humble poor. In her later novels these anachronisms and Indianisms get reduced. So most of the writers, who write in English, even though it is not their mother-tongue will be exposed to this problem of using English as an approximation to the spoken language.


Only in my fourth novel The Bliss of Life a good many Telugu and Sanskrit words had to be transliterated or transposed as it is au imaginative reconstruction of the life of a poet-saint-­musician of the seventeenth century. Kshetrayya’s life reveals the transcendence of man from a physical to a spiritual plane. The novel ends on a note of rapture divine and god-realisation attained through a surrender to the will of God.


Pastures New, my fifth novel, like The Bliss of Life, presents the best in Indian life, its traditions, its cultural heritage and its explorations into the life divine. The narrative is in the first person singular and the narrator Dr. Madhu dreams of a new world order when India leads the West in its quest for spiritual enlightenment and ethical idealism. This novel too has several Indian words literally transliterated into English.


Very often the question is asked, what is the Indianness in the Indo-Anglian writings? Several views are no doubt expressed,6 but my own thinking is that a creative writing does not become Indian simply because of Indianisms and expressions borrowed from Indian languages. It has to be a veritable account of Indian life with all its aspirations, hopes and frustrations. Strangely enough Naipaul takes The Vendor of Sweets and Samskara as typical illustrations of a wounded civilization. He says that “The Vendor of Sweets is a confused book; and its confusion holds much of the Indian confusion today”7 He sees in Jagan’s retreat the ultimate Hindu renunciation of life, “the death of a civilization, the final corruption of Hinduism”.8 Samskara, Naipaul admits, is a difficult novel, and he thinks that persons like the Acharya in that novel are “helpless, disadvantaged, easily unbalanced, the civilization they have inherited has long gone sour”.9 Both the novels are typically Indian and to a casual visitor like Naipaul they convey only the negative aspect of Indian beliefs and customs. Indianness in Indo-Anglian novels sometimes may lead to adverse conclusions. Kamala Markandeya’s Two Virgins and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust have been controversial for they present certain aspects of Indian life, not very much to the liking of the Indian readers. In recent years Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, pre­posterously huge in its size, has also depicted the Indian back­ground in a not very plausible manner. All these three novels may have pleased an alien reading public but the Indian sensi­bility does not seem to be altogether happy about them. Perhaps Indianness is taken to the logical extreme in these novels. We are very sensitive about the glory of our civilization, our culture and the human values cherished by us, even though ugly spots may still be found in our social and political life.


In most of these Indo-Anglian novels certain themes recur. The freedom movement, the partition and all the holocaust created at that time figure in Kushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan, Malgonkar’s Bend in the Ganges and Chaman Nahal’s Azadi. Azadi is a moving account of man’s inhumanity to man. Even the sweet and endearing love between Arun and Nur does not stand the fury of racial conflicts. Cham an Nahal, like Mulk Raj Anand, uses several Punjabi swear words and epithets, but as the novel gets momentum with displaced persons on the road, the style acquires a solidity and strength. The human suffering envelops the narrative in such a striking manner that the borrowed expressions from Punjabi become diminished or we get involved in the awful tale of human strife. Train to Pakistan is a down-to-earth, realistic picture of the partition with its horrors and atrocities committed on men, women and children savagely and ruthlessly. Malgonkar introduces the partition scene only towards the close of the novel Bend in the Ganges. The gruesome scenes in these novels, especially in Azadi, have a tragic intensity that captures the imagination of the readers.


Another theme relates to the lascivious lives of the princes and the feudal lords of the pre-Independent days. Malgonkar in The Princes presents the excesses in the life of the princes, their passions and their libidinous interests. The social and political history is dovetailed into the novel with considerable skill and detachment. Anand’s Private Life of an Indian Prince depicts the dissipated, lecherous life of Ashok Kumar, Maharaja of a small state, the court intrigues and amours. It is a decadent life given to ease, luxury and sloth and it is akin to the Nawab’s way of living as presented in Heat and Dust.


East-West encounter is another absorbing theme in these Indo-Anglian novels. In the world today no country can be isolated, nor can it maintain an exclusiveness in its cultural heritage. An awareness of assimilating cultures and of enriching each other’s national growth through such a fusion is very much to the liking of the Indo-Anglian novelists. Kamala Markandeya in Some Inner Fury. Bhabani Bhattacharya in A Dream in Hawaii, Raja Rao in The Serpent and the Rope have stressed this new phenomenon of a cultural assimilation. A Dream in Hawaii presents a penetrating look at the clash of values between the East and West To Dr. Vincent Swift, “the prototype of the twentieth century culture-vulture” in the novel, even the quest for spiritual truth has a typical utilitarian value. But Swami Yogananda, Professor turned Yogi, is modest and unsure of his mystic powers. Bhattacharya may be suggesting that despite these two diametrically opposite views there may still be some reconciliation for the benefit of mankind.


In all my first three novels The Stream, The Farewell Party and Look Homeward this theme of synthesizing, the cultures of the East and the Went figures. Look Homeward is about the East and West encounter and it deals with the problem of brain drain, with our Indian students going abroad and refusing to come back. Except Ravi, the protagonist in the novel, all others become enamoured of the American way of life, its glitter and show. They are unwilling to return to India because they see it as a country steeped in squalor, unmitigated poverty and uncontrolled corrup­tion. Dr. Gupta’s marriage with Rosie makes him a confirmed critic of everything Indian. Look Homeward is a novel with a message, and finally most of the young men, for one reason or the other, come back to India with a determination to own it and to be owned by it, however discouraging the conditions may be. In all these three novels the centrality of interest is on cross cultural assimilation.


On the whole it can reasonably be said that Indo-Anglian novel has attained a state of recognition and acceptance. The contribution of women novelists is equally significant. Kamala Markandeya with her perception of Indian life, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala with her presentation of the upper middle class life in urban areas, Anita Desai with her feminist stance and Nayantara Sahgal with her involvement in the politics of the day have amply recorded their individualised approaches to life in their novels.


Even though novel is the most popular form of writing all over the world, the Indo-Anglian poet, Kamala Das, Nissim Ezekiel, Ramanujan, Parthasarathy and several others, academics as well as professionals, have distinguished themselves as poets of promise. Of course William Walsh feels that “the high point of the Indian achievement in English is in the novel”.10 In the absence of an established tradition of producing plays in English, the Indo-Aglian plays have an inherent disadvantage. Stage-worthiness being the test for a play, most of the plays written in English do not fulfil this requirement. However, plays of Asif Currimbhoy, Nissim Ezekiel and others have been enjoyed for their thematic content and social realism.


Indian criticism on Shakespeare, Milton, T. S. Eliot and other English and American writers has won a respectable recogni­tion and acclaim. But the criticism offered on the Indian writing in English is Johnsonian, full of adulation for some and sad neglect of others. Even the reviewing of these Indo-Anglian books is biased. Prof. Iyengar rightly points out, “Generally speaking, book-reviewing is still unsatisfactory – books are reviewed too late, or reviewed perfunctorily”.11 Of course in the initial stages critical assessment in any literature tends to be prejudiced and partial. But I am sure that the present state will very soon be replaced by a fair, just and equitable appreciation of all the best works in Indo-Anglian literature.


In the context of the changing conditions and attitudes towards English in India, it will be desirable for the teachers of English and other scholars in English to bring out the best in the Indian languages through a process of comparative studies or translations. The expertise in and the accumulated knowledge of English literature and literary criticism should be profitably used for the interpretation of one’s own literature to the outside world. Comparative literature, especially when it conforms to the study of genres, will be a healthy means of enriching both the literatures and it will be a rewarding experience indeed. There is also the need for interaction of languages and literatures in India and the best works in one language can be exposed, evaluated and interpreted through English. In years to come the relevance of English in India as a link literature will be a reality. One need not be a prophet to visualise Indian writing in English assuming a major role in the integration of India and in upholding the cultural heritage of India in the comity of world nations.


In The Discovery of India Nehru poses the question, “Which of these two Englands came to India? The England of Shakespeare and Milton, of noble speech and writing and brave deed…..  or the England of the savage penal code and brutal behaviour, of entrenched feudalism and reaction.” (p 285) No doubt we had the England of the savage penal code during the British regime, now we have the England of Shakespeare and Milton influencing the commonwealth writers in shaping a new literature that assimilates cultures of the East and the West.




1 Milton, John. Prose Writings, p. 239 (Everyman, Paper-back)

2 Raja Rao, Kanthapura, Foreword.

3 Mulk Raj Anand, ‘The Changeling’, Indian Writing in English, ed. Ramesh Mohan. p. 15.

4 Ibid., p. 20.

5 Ramesh Mohan, ‘Some aspects of style and language in Indian English fiction’, Ibid. p. 193.

6 Prof. V. K. Gokak in ‘The Concept of Indianness’ says, ‘One may say, therefore, that the Indianness of Indian writing consists in the writer’s intense awareness of his entire culture’. Ibid. p. 24.

To Prof. K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar Indianness lies In ‘The choice of subject, in the texture of thought and play of sentiment, in the organization of material and the creative use of language’. ‘Indian Writing in English: Prospect and Retrospect’, Ibid., p.8.

7 Naipaul, V. S. India: A wounded civilization, p. 42.

8 Ibid., p. 43.

9 Ibid., p. 108.

10 Walsh, William, Commonwealth Literature, p. 24.

11 Srinivasa Iyengar, K. R. ‘Indian Writing in English: Prospect and Retrospect’. Indian Writing in English ed. Ramesh Mohan. p. 6.