In this lesson we explore English-language authors from India, from the colonial period when English was introduced until the present day. Their literary work covers an exhaustive range of topics.
English-language Indian Authors
India is an enormous country. The seventh-largest country in terms of land area, India is home to more than 1.2 billion people! This enormous population speaks dozens of different languages and dialects. Though Hindi is the official language of the government, another important language is one you might not suspect: English.
Surprise: the English first brought the English language to the Indian subcontinent when they colonized the area in the 17th and 18th centuries. Since this time, the use of English has been essential for government work and controversial among Indian nationalists. Nonetheless, it remains a part of India’s vibrant culture. In this lesson, we will explore the work of just a few of the hundreds of prominent English-language writers from India.
Writing in the 19th Century
Though an affluent Indian traveler wrote a travel book in 1794, there were few native Indian writers writing in English prior to the 20th century. This is largely due to the fact that only a handful of native Indians spoke and conducted daily business in English. Though British colonialism in India helped popularize the English language, for decades it remained largely the language of the elite. The first English-language novel written by a native Indian was not published until 1864.
In fact, those English-language writers existing in India during this period were generally the children of the British colonial government. Rudyard Kipling exemplifies these writers. Born in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1865, Kipling’s writing, including turn of the century works like The Jungle Book, Kim, and various shorter works like the poem The White Man’s Burden, is important for two reasons. First, his poems and prose are considered some of the best English-language writing of the 19th century. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Kipling’s work explores the paternal and at times racist British view of their colonial subjects in India.
Writing in the 20th Century
In the 20th century, more and more literature appeared in the English language written by native Indian writers. The topics of these works range from translations of traditional Indian folk tales and stories to political satire and outright denunciations of British colonialism.
Dhan Gopal Mukerji, an Indian who moved to the United States, was a popular English-language Indian writer in the early 20th century. Several of his works draw on his experiences as a child in India, though he was most popular for his children’s books, like Gay Neck, the Story of a Pigeon, which won him the Newbery Medal in 1928.
Many English-language Indian writers in the 20th century were renowned for their ability to elucidate the differences between western and Indian cultures and mindsets, often through the use of satire and sarcasm. One notable writer in this vein is Khushwant Singh, a lawyer who wrote novels, poetry, and edited various English-language literary journals in India. Others, like the still active Shobha De, write biting political and cultural criticisms about the inherent problems in traditional Indian society, particularly the challenges faced by women.
More 20th Century Writers
Other 20th century English-language Indian writers left politics out, instead writing novels and stories detailing real-life, down-to-earth examples of Indian characters. Many writers in this mold, such as R.K. Narayan and Amitav Ghosh, draw upon their childhood experiences to provide a glimpse of an India their readers likely don’t know exists.
Still other authors belong to the Indian diaspora, or groups of Indians now living elsewhere, often in western nations, like the United States or the United Kingdom. Usually the work of Indian-born, western-educated authors, these books often provide a piercing analysis and/or criticism of Indian culture and politics. Arguably the most accomplished author in this category is Salman Rushdie. Still others focus not on India, but on the Indian diaspora itself. Authors like Jhumpa Lahiri and others detail the experience of Indians who move to western countries and encounter biases and racism.
This brief synopsis of English-language Indian literature merely scratches the surface: its subject matter and authors are as diverse as India itself. English-language Indian literature is a relatively young concept and likely only exists because of the legacy of British colonialism in India. Much 19th century Indian English-language writing, such as that of Rudyard Kipling, was the product of the ruling British classes. In the 20th century, native Indian writers began utilizing the language once it was firmly entrenched in India as the language of colonialism. Since then, Indian writers have covered a panoply of subjects, from the political to the personal and everything in between.