The political rise of Hindu nationalism over the last three decades has generated many persuasive ideologues, but the movement does not, in English at any rate, have a house novelist, someone to turn ideas and abstractions into characters and plots.
This is a shame. Firstly, it allows Indian novelists of a certain ideological disposition a free run of the land. The result is often a facile secularism, a kind of reflexive celebration of India’s diversity, that borrows its vocabulary and its tropes from well-worn ideas, and thus has no linguistic or narrative energy to call its own. Tellingly, when Hindu nationalists appear in such novels, they are condemned from first sight by the narrator as zealots, driven by anger, hate, and lust (Arya in Manil Suri’s The Age of Shiva, or the cartoonish Minister Prasad in Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi’s The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay).
Secondly, it would appear that there is a want of serious engagement in the Indian novel in English not just with Hindu nationalism, but with the immense weight of Hinduism itself. Not only is Hindu nationalism artistically unfashionable (except as a convenient source of villainy and conflict), its absence points to a deeper failing that ironically might be seen as lending credence to the Hindu nationalists’ complaint about the falling away of Hinduism from the wellsprings of culture. Barring exceptions such as Raja Rao’s Kanthapura, Hinduism itself is rarely explored or interrogated in an extended way in modern Indian novels in English.
This suggests a narrative orientation in the Indian novel in English that is not just politically centrist or left-of-centre, but which engages with religion more at the level of observation and backdrop than of sympathetic immersion or experience. Hinduism’s massive repository of ideas, fables, images, exemplars, proverbs, aphorisms and narrative structures have left an impression on the Indian novel in English far smaller than the one that it exerts on public and private life in India. One might say that, while Hinduism should be part of the Indian novelist’s wealth, the challenges of realising a mainly Sanskritic worldview persuasively in English are such that it is usually treated as a tax.
This background makes all the more significant the appearance of an English translation of Debi Chaudhurani, a late work by the Bengali writer Bankimchandra Chatterji (1838-1894), India’s first major novelist. One of the earliest recruits of the Indian Civil Service established in the middle of the 19th century by the British, Bankim – so familiar a name in Indian letters, across linguistic traditions, that he is usually referred to by his first name – spent his working life as a deputy magistrate in the colonial administration. But, even though he represented the vanguard of a new class of anglicised Indians (going so far as to write his first novel, Rajmohan’s Wife, in a sonorous English), Bankim’s ear remained close to the ground.
His novels, particularly those of his late “nationalist” phase, are preoccupied with contemplating the future (and reprising and sometimes reimagining the past) of a predominantly Hindu Bengali society hobbled, from without, by the martial superiority first of Muslim rulers and then the British, and from within, by a stagnation of thought, social structure and gender roles. Debi Chaudhurani (1884), loosely based on the story of a real-life female bandit in 18th-century Bengal, offers the reader a deeply felt vision of “the Hindu way of life” – one that celebrates but also interrogates Hindu tradition. If one were to imagine contemporary Hindu nationalism as its best and most intellectually coherent (something it is mostly not), this might be the kind of reading of Hinduism it would offer.
Like many 19th-century realists (Hardy, Flaubert, Zola), Bankim was fond of female protagonists, the better to portray the constraints and inquities of the patriarchal society that was, as much as the individual, the subject of his enquiry. When we first see his heroine, a young woman called Prafulla, it is as the victim of the neglect of society and “the pinchings of poverty” (this is one of Bankim’s lovely phrases from his one and only English novel).