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Thursday, Oct 17, 2019

There’s more to it than meets the eye

Time and again, post-colonial literature has seen Indian novelists exercise social commentary as an underlying tool to mask their stories

books Updated: Sep 20, 2019 18:22 IST
Navneet Vyasan
Navneet Vyasan
Hindustan Times
         

navneet.vyasan@htlive.com

All things considered, a novel, by far, has been considered a source of escapism, for it is what acts as an apparatus and bridges the gap between fiction and reality. India, in particular, has over the years produced literary wisdom, that has found takers across the world. But it is not just an entertaining story that makes a successful novel stand apart. Allegories, parables and elegies, perhaps assist in conveying what a writer wants to convey deep down — the status of the society they grew up in. Social commentary, therefore, can be found in almost all major Indian novellas, for these are as important as the story itself. Here, we take a look at three social issues that Indian novelists have tried to convey through the written word, time and again.

The immigration parable

“For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realise, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy – a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been ordinary life, only to discover that previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding,” writes Lahiri in her most celebrated novel — The Namesake. Ashima Ganguli, a first-generation immigrant, who moves to the The United States from India, struggles to get accustomed to her new surroundings. Ashima grapples to make sense of her son Gogol’s behaviour as he grows up in the US.

Jhumpa Lahiri writes about an immigrant’s struggle in her novel, The Namesake
Jhumpa Lahiri writes about an immigrant’s struggle in her novel, The Namesake ( Photo by Vishal Bhatnagar /Mint )

Nobel Laureate, the late VS Naipaul, perhaps was the most widely read Indian-origin author who lived in Trinidad. Son of the late author Seepersad Naipaul, they came from a family of labourers and sugar plantation workers who had migrated to The Caribbean in the British Raj. Naipaul’s novels, both fiction and non-fiction, somehow always found their way back to India, and Indians — their inability to break free of religious taboos, their struggle to integrate with the local community and the rigorous toil to evade poverty, is explored in his 560-pager breakthrough work, A House For Mr Biswas.

The late author VS Naipaul’s A House For Mr Biswas in a definitive work which mirrors the life of Hindus in Trinidad
The late author VS Naipaul’s A House For Mr Biswas in a definitive work which mirrors the life of Hindus in Trinidad ( Photo by Satish Bate )

The changing Indian landscape

Numerous novels come up when one thinks of post-colonial India. But how does one signify advancing years and at the same time, project stock-still mental notions? Perhaps, one can find these in two of the most telling novels published in different decades — A Suitable Boy and The White Tiger.

Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy is set in the newly independent India
Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy is set in the newly independent India ( Photo by Sanjeev Verma )

Vikram Seth’s 1993 novel, set in the post-independence era, A Suitable Boy, presents a cogent view of the post-independent India through realistic and symbolic narratives of the making of a nation. Seth examines significant national issues with political colouring in the post-independent era, the effects of the partition, and most importantly — the persistence of old traditions. “Whenever she opened a scientific book and saw whole paragraphs of incomprehensible words and symbols, she felt a sense of wonder at the great territories of learning that lay beyond her — the sum of so many noble and purposive attempts to make objective sense of the world”, perhaps nothing is more telling.

Aravind Adiga’s Booker Prize winning novel, White Tiger explores the fast changing metropolitan city of New Delhi
Aravind Adiga’s Booker Prize winning novel, White Tiger explores the fast changing metropolitan city of New Delhi ( Photo: David Levenson )

“To sum up — in the old days there were one thousand castes and destinies in India. These days, there are just two castes: Men with Big Bellies, and Men with Small Bellies. And only two destinies: eat — or get eaten up,” writes Adiga in his Booker Prize-winning debut, The White Tiger. The novel, in its riveting first-person narrative, tells the tale of an entrepreneur who writes a set of setters to the visiting Chinese premier. Through these, he talks of how the definition of a ‘successful man’ changes in India from place to place, much like its culture and language, and how the common man who dreams of luxuries only a city can provide, toils to achieve it — something well beyond his reach.

Gender identity

Perhaps it was in 1942, that the first notable attempt to write about gender identity took place in India. Lihaaf, a short story, written by Ismat Chughtai, unsurprisingly made the country erupt. Chughtai was made to stand trial for obscenity in the Lahore court. “After marrying Begum Jan and installing her in the house along with the furniture, the Nawab Sahib totally forgot her presence, leaving the frail young Begum to pine in loneliness,” she writes about a solemn Begum, who starts having an affair with Rabbo, a house masseuse, who’s brought to serve her husband.

Amitav Ghosh paints a complex picture of Neel Halder, the protagonist of his novel, Sea Of Poppies
Amitav Ghosh paints a complex picture of Neel Halder, the protagonist of his novel, Sea Of Poppies ( photo by Pradeep Gaur/mint )

But that was in the pre-independence era. Of late, too, numerous authors have tried to incorporate subtle undertones of gender fluidity. Amitav Ghosh’s, Sea of Poppies, was the first volume of his much celebrated Ibis Trilogy. Appreciation flew in from all directions for Ghosh’s creation of a world, withering with opium trade between British India and China. But one thing stood out – that of its lead protagonist, Neel Halder. His character examines the effect of displacement on an aristocratic ruler who is forced into exile. Haldar’s journey to destitution, enables him to rediscover his lost masculinity through a chain of events, which leads to his fall from grace and also reveals the feminine side of him to the reader.

First Published: Sep 20, 2019 18:19 IST

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