MIRRORWORK: 50 Years of Indian Writing 1947-1997.<i> Edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West</i> .<i> Henry Holt: 554 pp., $15 paper</i> : INDIA: From Midnight to the Millennium.<i> By Shashi Tharoor</i> .<i> Arcade: 392 pp., $27.95</i>

Share via
<i> Sunil Khilnani is the author of "The Idea of India," forthcoming from Farrar, Straus & Giroux</i>

Modern India is a linguistic Babel, an incorrigibly garrulous society in a constant, many-tongued conversation with itself. Language famously divides Indians--the country has no single “national” language--and the constitution adopted after India won its freedom 50 years ago opted to give equal recognition to more than a dozen “official” languages and willingly accommodate more whenever necessary. Yet this abundant linguistic variety has also united Indians in a common need to translate, to move between and across their linguistic parishes. Part of what it is to be a modern Indian is to exist in a condition of semantic limbo, a space where languages continually collide with and contort one another.

A Shiva-like linguistic multi-dexterity was indeed a defining trait of the Indian nationalism that put an end to the British Raj in 1947. Men like Mahatma Gandhi or Jawaharlal Nehru, for instance, rejected the idea of a single or homogenous Indian culture in favor of a determinedly multilingual and multicultural picture. They moved comfortably between their regional vernaculars (Gujarati and Hindustani, respectively) and languages, such as English or Hindi, that enabled communication with a larger audience.

English entered India’s jostling linguistic world in the mid-19th century, imposed by the British as the language of rule and subjection but equally of education and law. In the hands of men like Gandhi and Nehru, it also became the language of subversion, the instrument whereby the empire was made to look tongue-tied. The history of English’s introduction and adoption in India has ensured for it a perpetually uneasy place in the country’s public life. Increasingly criticized as the language of an alien elite by those who speak for India’s largest single language group, the 300 million Hindi-speakers (who nevertheless remain a minority in a country of almost 1 billion), English has become the focus of swirling cultural resentments. It has ceased to be the language of thought and feeling for all but a very small fragment of Indians (at most 3% of the population), and in the mainstream of Indian life, its uses have been reduced to more narrowly utilitarian functions. Yet it still flourishes: It is the language in which many of India’s newly released commercial and industrial aspirations are finding expression, and it also has gained a new lease in India’s public life as a common language for the governing elite, which is today drawn from a more regionally diverse background than perhaps at any time since the country’s independence.


Even more paradoxically, at this moment of cultural constriction, English has suddenly blossomed into an immense, rebellious creativity in the hands of Indian writers, manifest in the explosion of literary talent from the subcontinent over the last 20 years.

“Mirrorwork” at once is a homage to and a product of this explosion. It collects in rather haphazard fashion several generations of Indian writers who have left their mark on the English language. This necessarily makes for uneven, jump-cut reading. The definition of “writing” used to determine the pieces in “Mirrorwork” is odd, at once too loose and too narrow: It incorporates the unforgettably moving cadences of Nehru’s “Tryst With Destiny” speech delivered at midnight on Aug. 14, 1947 (the very moment when India gained independence), and the moody, torrential and unrelentingly writerly wordplay of Arundhati Roy’s “Abhilash Talkies” excerpted from her novel “The God of Small Things”--the most spectacular example, in 1997, of the empire talking back. But the collection fails to find any room for poetry, drama and other literary forms that have been important for contemporary Indian writers.

Ostensibly, this collection represents Salman Rushdie’s contribution to India’s celebration of 50 years of independence. But it has been received in India with some indignation and irritation. The provocation lies not in the individual pieces that have been gathered together as representative of Indian writing but rather in Rushdie’s introduction. This is without a doubt a heroically self-serving performance, which makes the anthology less a balance sheet of contemporary Indian writing and more a 50th birthday present bestowed by Rushdie upon himself, midnight’s perpetual child. Its implicit function, in the Rushdiean scheme of things, is to produce a pop “literary history” of “Indian writing” since 1947, which reveals that it was all leading up to the arrival on the scene of Rushdie himself. Rushdie uses his selections to arrange a preceding sequence of paternity as well as to show off what he now claims as his progeny.

Deciding that attack is the best form of defense, Rushdie justifies his Anglophone focus by recklessly advancing the thesis that the best Indian writing over the last 50 years has been done in English, not in India’s many vernacular languages--or at least not, he claims, by the evidence of what is available in English translation. He lists a number of writers in the “vernacular” languages, most of whom have Indian readerships far larger than their fellow countrymen who write in English, but decides that few of these match what has been done by Indians writing in English. None of them--with the exception of Saadat Hasan Manto, whose classic Urdu story about partition, “Toba Tek Singh,” is the only translated work included--is available in translations that come up to the mark, according to Rushdie.

Leave aside Rushdie’s dubious feel for regional literatures; even his judgment about translations is simply wrong. Any anthology of Indian writing over the last 50 years that has no place for the late A.K. Ramanujan must cede any claim to be taken seriously. Ramanujan, a classicist with a modernist sensibility, embodies all those aspects of the modern Indian literary tradition that Rushdie does not. He was a writer of exquisite poetry in English as well as of memorable critical prose; his translations from Sanskrit, Tamil and Kannada into English but also, most important, between Indian languages, must rank among the greatest in 20th century literature anywhere. It is a baffling exclusion.

No doubt all collections invite this type of criticism from carping reviewers, but the point here touches a deeper problem at the heart of “Mirrorwork,” and one that confirms it as a product of the kinds of pressure and restrictions that ideas of India, and definitions of what is “Indian,” face today. The political and economic logics set in motion after 1947 have produced a cultural world that has fragmented the multicultural, multilingual idea of India--a definition of “Indianness” rooted in the ideal of translation--into three unevenly sized segments: a small and powerful anglicized metropolitan elite; a loose, huge group of Hindi-speaking middle castes and classes; and the vernacular regional cultures. Each of these is suspicious and resentful of the other, unwilling or unable to learn to speak the other’s language. Rushdie’s reveling in the achievements of merely one of these segments precisely mirrors the chauvinisms of the others.


There are other, more practical problems with the volume: poorly produced, riddled with typographical and copy editing errors. That said, there are also practical successes and pleasures: Many of the individual pieces are in themselves delightful, and they do help to reveal some recurring themes of Indian writing in English.

Much of the strength of Indian writing in English has come from its unblinking focus on the minutiae and trivia of middle-class life, especially in its domestic and family particulars. Childhood, adolescence and memories of these are constantly returned to, and this lends it a feeling of loss, the sense of a past that now exists only in memory. (In many of the pieces, there is a sense of glancing backward through a porthole at an India of the memory, an imaginary homeland disappearing on the horizon.) The boredom and ennui of this world are also a rich seam for this writing, and many of the authors represented here show a fascination for small lives, pettily lived, often amid momentous events. The recurring tone is comic at its best, gentle and sardonic; less good when it becomes overly self-conscious, descending into archness and farce. Finally, it is striking how important that quintessential modernist genre, the short story, is to a number of these Indian writers.

Many of these characteristics come together in what stands out as the most achieved example in the volume, Upamanyu Chatterjee’s “The Assassination of Indira Gandhi,” a languidly wrought short story that evokes the hazy meanderings of a college boy, Bunny, in the terrible days after Gandhi’s death in 1984. It is balanced between the momentous and the meaningless, summoning up at once the rumble of India’s deep philosophical themes and a very contemporary aimlessness; its subtle perfection exists in its ending: “One had to wait for the mad event, that was all. Where were the certainties? In the sky and sun? To the questions, there were no solutions; there was only a life, and only one life. Ambition was an absurdity; so-much-to-do-and-so-little-time-to-do-it-in, how pointless an outlook, here, look at Indira Gandhi, Bunny used to think, and often smile at the recollection.”

Faced with the extraordinary paradoxes and bewilderingly directed energies of contemporary India, most have tried to make some sense of it through fiction or through the journalistic travelogue. More reflective and incisive nonfictional interrogations of India’s distinctive modernity have yet to be produced. Despite his intentions, this situation remains unaltered by the publication of Shashi Tharoor’s “India: From Midnight to Millennium.” Much of the book comprises recycled journalistic pieces, which Tharoor tries to inject with longer life by arranging them around four slogans: “bread versus freedom,” “centralization versus federalism,” “pluralism versus fundamentalism” and “globalization versus self-sufficiency.”

But what results is no more than a gentle wade through the standard set of “issues” that are assumed to face contemporary India, which lacks any driving focus or analytical precision. It forsakes rigorous argument for the soft plash of anecdote and sentimental evocation. Tharoor’s book is informative and amiable, and there are some good set pieces in it--for instance, a nice account told as an exemplary tale of a childhood playmate of Tharoor’s, an “untouchable” boy, who makes good later in life, rising to the upper levels of the Indian civil service. But, although the author comes across as a decent and congenial man, there is a disappointing glibness to the book, and it lacks any sense of genuine intellectual puzzlement in the face of what is surely one of the most remarkable political experiments with democracy that our century has seen.