Origins of Indian English Literature

April 28, 2007 at 6:56 am 7 comments

All of us, who like to think of ourselves as cool and contemporary, either like or detest brands like Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, Salman Rushdie, Chitra Banerjee Dibakaruni, etc. But we silently ignore the people who are responsible for initiating the era of Indian English literature. When we discuss Indian poets who express their imagination in English, we conveniently forget people like Sarojini Naidu. It is true that we know about her, and have read her poems at some point of time, but we ignore her over the cups of coffee while delving into blank verses. She, and the likes of her, are confined to the literature syllabus.

All of us have a craving for appreciating that which is not understood by many. Perhaps we neglect the romanticism of the earlier era because we, in our scholastic naiveté, ridicule the appreciation attained in a pedantic manner. And in the process we neglect the beauty that is obvious. The simplicity of the early English writers from India carry that beauty in their works.

To begin at the very beginning, the contributions of Bankimchandra Chatterjee and Toru Dutt cannot escape our attention.

Bankim’s contribution was the first English novel by an Indian, Rajmohan’s Wife (1864). A novel where the female protagonist’s (Maatangini) romanticism is snatched away and she is punished for her personal revolt against the mundane life and its meaningless shackles. An extremely modern novel of it’s times – the plot and it’s message remains socially relevant even today. This article by Makarand Paranjape is an excellent discussion of Bankim’s works and their social and national consequences.

Perhaps the best article on Bankim Chandra Chatterjee is this one: Rishi Bankim (by Sri Chinmoy).

Toru Dutt (1856 – 1877), virtually unknown during her short life of 21 years, made her mark posthumously in the world of literature by sheer purity of the spirit in her writings. Her most famous novel, Le Journal de Mademoiselle d’Arvers, was published from Paris in 1879. The following is one poem from the impressive creations of art she left behind:

Our Casuarina Tree

LIKE a huge Python, winding round and round
The rugged trunk, indented deep with scars,
Up to its very summit near the stars,
A creeper climbs, in whose embraces bound
No other tree could live. But gallantly
The giant wears the scarf, and flowers are hung
In crimson clusters all the boughs among,
Whereon all day are gathered bird and bee;
And oft at nights the garden overflows
With one sweet song that seems to have no close,
Sung darkling from our tree, while men repose.

When first my casement is wide open thrown
At dawn, my eyes delighted on it rest;
Sometimes, and most in winter,—on its crest
A gray baboon sits statue-like alone
Watching the sunrise; while on lower boughs
His puny offspring leap about and play;
And far and near kokilas hail the day;
And to their pastures wend our sleepy cows;
And in the shadow, on the broad tank cast
By that hoar tree, so beautiful and vast,
The water-lilies spring, like snow enmassed.

But not because of its magnificence
Dear is the Casuarina to my soul:
Beneath it we have played; though years may roll,
O sweet companions, loved with love intense,
For your sakes, shall the tree be ever dear.
Blent with your images, it shall arise
In memory, till the hot tears blind mine eyes!
What is that dirge-like murmur that I hear
Like the sea breaking on a shingle-beach?
It is the tree’s lament, an eerie speech,
That haply to the unknown land may reach.

Unknown, yet well-known to the eye of faith!
Ah, I have heard that wail far, far away
In distant lands, by many a sheltered bay,
When slumbered in his cave the water-wraith
And the waves gently kissed the classic shore
Of France or Italy, beneath the moon,
When earth lay trancèd in a dreamless swoon:
And every time the music rose, — before
Mine inner vision rose a form sublime,
Thy form, O Tree, as in my happy prime
I saw thee, in my own loved native clime.

Therefore I fain would consecrate a lay
Unto thy honor, Tree, beloved of those
Who now in blessed sleep for aye repose, —
Dearer than life to me, alas, were they!
Mayst thou be numbered when my days are done
With deathless trees—like those in Borrowdale,
Under whose awful branches lingered pale
“Fear, trembling Hope, and Death, the skeleton,
And Time the shadow;” and though weak the verse
That would thy beauty fain, oh, fain rehearse,
May Love defend thee from Oblivion’s curse.

Creative Commons License

Origins of Indian English Literature by
Ritwik Banerjee is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

Entry filed under: india, literature, Poetry.

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Sowmya  |  July 13, 2007 at 1:37 am

    Bankim wrote one and only fictional work in English in his life and that is “Rajmohan’s Wife”…so, perhaps, You should have mentioned in your article the likes of Rajarao (Ofcourse, my only attempt to read his novels..was a failure), R.K.Narayan (I just love him), Mulk Raj Anand etc… I feel the links provided on discussion of Bankim ji’s works, though are very useful, are not relevant to the title of this post, for he wrote them in Bengali. No offence meant. Just a personal opinion..

    Reply: My article was about the origin of Indian English literature, not the genre in its entirely. That is why I did not feel the need to include R K Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand, etc. I didn’t know about Rajarao, and I shall certainly do a bit of research about him. The first link, an article by Makarand Paranjape, is titled, The Allegory of Rajmohan’s Wife: National Culture and Colonialism in Asia’s First English Novel. I cannot bring myself to believe that Asia’s first English novel was written in Bengali (since you say ” I feel the links provided . . . . for he wrote them in Bengali”). The second link was provided in order to provide a glimpse into the life of the man who wrote Asia’s first English novel, and also to perhaps expound why he shifted focus to Bengali afterward.


  • 2. dr. ram sharma  |  July 17, 2008 at 4:09 am


    Reply: I have said something like that in the article, haven’t I?


  • 3. Narasingha P. Sil  |  January 20, 2009 at 4:08 am

    Bankim was a lugubrious failure in his maiden venture with an English fiction. His prose was turgid and literal, infact quite sophomoric. But he was a highly intelligent individual and he was painfully aware of his lacunae. This, arguably, was a blessing in disguise for all Bengalis. Disappointed with his maiden literary venture in a foreign tongue, this supremely intellectual Bengali turned his genius on his mother tongue, and lo and behold, we have his greatest gift to his motherland, the magisterial “Durgeshnandini!” Read my take on this greatest of the literati of Renascent Bengal in Calcutta Historical Journal, vol. 27, no1 (2007): “Bankim Redivivus: An Appraisal” by Narasingha P. Sil.

  • 4. tinarathore  |  August 19, 2009 at 8:48 pm

    a useful resource for students of literature. I was expecting a legthy artcle illustrating the beginings just the way many History books do…thankfully i was wrong. I completly agree to what you say…we neglect simplicity for obscurity. Today we have more n more people reading contemporary lit, caring little for great poets like Tagore, Naidu, Dutt. we must do our best to promote understanding and appreciation of them so that people read them not out of compulsion but interest.

  • 5. sudiptamunsi  |  April 18, 2012 at 4:28 am

    A Note on the Use of Language in Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s Novels

    Any good novel is always full of a pace which contributes to the liveliness of both the character and the story itself. Bankim Chandra’s greatest tool in achieving this pace was his language. Generally speaking, his novels are written in the standard or literary Bengali, known as the sadhubhasa. And this sadhubhasa is characterised by the unmistakable presence of the words of Sanskrit origin, lengthy compound-words in the Sanskrit fashion, lengthy syntax, etc. True, Bankim’s language shows these symptoms of a ‘standard’ Bengali indubitably, but this is not the end. He uses words of Arabic and Persian origin to a great extent (if not equally). Often he does not even hesitate to use words, phrases and expressions which are altogether colloquial. All these have a motley effect on the reader’s mind. Normally when we read a piece written in Sanskritised Bengali we hardly expect to become one with the theme or the characters. This is because of the deep chasm lying between the language of reality – the language we speak and the language of fiction – the language we write. In his novels, often the beauty of nature or a nostalgic and romantic episode or description is expressed by Bankim in this grandiose sadhubhasa. But when the author wants his readers to take a trip to the world of conflicts that sway the characters or the story itself both within and without his sentences become often shorter in length, more direct, closer to the colloquial pattern. However, even in such sentences the verb-form is always retained in the sadhu, which lends a musical and poetic effect to these apparently banal constructions. Many of Bankim’s novels have quite a simple or thin storyline or plot, but its mirth is not marred because of the extremely powerful and balanced language in which it is embedded. Again in such works as Radharani, it is the movement of the language which alone contributes to the characters’ being on the move. The conflicting, unseemly character of the Babu class in Bishabriksha (The Poison Tree) is underlined by the mixed language, and such English expressions as ‘Hurrah! Three Cheers for Heera!’ The keynote of political tension in Anandamath is brought out by the contrasting use of ‘Hare Murare’ cry of the Santans and ‘Hurrah’ of the English soldiers and the blow of their cannons. The latter is expressed by the author with the help of the onomatopoeia – ‘gudum, gudum, gudum’. Bankim’s naming of the individual chapters of his novels is also noted for their linguistic originality and they are often derived from Sanskrit philosophical literature (as in Bishbriksha, Mrinalini, etc.) or everyday speech. Their often perfunctory appearance helps realise the immediacy of the theme better. So it is the dialectics of words-as-sound and such innovative linguistic ‘deviations’ in Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s novels which underlines, reinforces and sustains the dialectics of thought and ideas. And this ultimately endorses Bankim’s literary craftsmanship of the highest order.

    • 6. desicontrarian  |  July 20, 2015 at 7:11 pm

      Beautiful assessment. I wish I knew Bengali !

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