Reclaiming Indian Past(s): Postmodern Historiography and Magical Realism in the Indian English Novel
Improbable you say?
All improbables are probable in India.
- G. V. Desani, All About H. Hatterr
History, or more precisely historiography, has been one of the central issues of postcolonial studies, offering a fertile ground for debates and analyses for scholars and critics working in the field in the last forty years or so. Since the publication of Edward Said’s seminal work, Orientalism (1978), it has become almost axiomatic in postcolonial studies to view Western historiography as a powerful instrument used by colonial powers to legitimise their presence in foreign lands. While representing the culture of the colonised people as stagnant and their political and social institutions obsolete, the colonisers promoted themselves as the material and spiritual protectors of the “lesser” peoples and hid their economic interests under the pretext of a lofty civilising mission. Particularly after the withdrawal of colonial powers, the former colonies began to challenge and question this Eurocentric version of history and reclaimed their long denigrated past by transforming it into a positive identity affirmation. Hence, as M. H. Abrams and G. G. Harpham succinctly put it, one of the principal preoccupations of postcolonial writing has been:
[t]he rejection of the “master-narrative” of Western imperialism – in which the colonial “other” is not only subordinated and marginalized, but in effect deleted as a cultural agency – and its replacement by a counter-narrative in which the colonial cultures fight their way back into a world history written by Europeans. (236-237)
Given the fact that India had been subjected to British colonial rule for about a century (1858-1947), it is perhaps not surprising that the Indian novel in English has been an active site of national self-definition through narrativisation of history as an anti-colonial practice. As in other former colonies, a resurgence of interest in indigenous roots marked the early examples of Indian literature in English. Most of the novels written in this period reflected the tenets of the anti-colonial ideology and sought to promote a unified vision of Indian nationhood and nationalism. “One of the most striking trends in the Indian novel in English,” Dennis Walder points out, “has been its tendency to reclaim the nation’s histories” (103). In the same vein, U. M. Nanavati and Prafulla C. Kar observe, “Indian writing in English published before the 1970s was willy-nilly caught up and embroiled with questions of national identity and some forms of cultural revivalism” (12-13). In this early phase of the Indian novel in English, writers like Chandra Chatterjee, Mulk Raj Anand, R. K. Narayan and Raja Rao embraced the mimetic realism of the nineteenth-century novelists and “exploited English for no better purpose than to vindicate the spirit of India and its quintessential unity” (Nanavati and Kar 12).
There was, however, an increasingly urgent need to represent the sensibilities of the new hybrid identity generated by the experience of colonialism, and change was inevitable. In the late 1970s and the early 1980s, a new mode of writing began to emerge, bringing about a fresh creative breakthrough. Meenakshi Sharma outlines the transformation the Indian novel in English was undergoing in this period as follows,
Since its inception, Indian English fiction has been dominated (except for sporadic experimental writing) by the monologic, singular and realist narrative aimed at encapsulating the essence of Indian reality through ‘typical’ characters, situations, settings and dialogue. With the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children in 1981 however, a refreshing, productive and invigorating upheaval occurred in Indian English literature. (125)
The distinction between this new generation of writers and their predecessors seems to stem in large from the radical change in the perception of historiography that gradually took hold in the second half of the twentieth century. The novel, that is to say its production and reception as a cultural object, has always responded to the developments in the field of history. However, the relationship between the two had remained controversial until the late twentieth century, mainly because “history defined itself in opposition to literature as an empirical search for external truths corresponding to what was considered to be the absolute reality of past events” (Onega 12). The advent of post-structuralist and postmodern theories in the 1970s had an emancipatory effect on historiography, undercutting the dichotomy between literature and history that had been present ever since Aristotle. Contemporary philosophers of history, such as Hayden White, Paul Veyne and Jacques Ehrmann have repeatedly underscored the fact that historiography, just like literature, is a narrative construct. As a result, from the 1980s onwards, history began to be defined not against, but in relation to literature. It was no longer an inviolable source of absolute truths about the past, but one of the many possible versions of past events.
This postmodernist view of history overlapped to a great extent with postcolonial writing, whose primary intention, according to Leela Gandhi, has been to “fragment or interpellate this [Eurocentric] account with the voices of all those unaccounted for ‘others’ who have been silenced and domesticated under the sign of Europe” (171). It was within the convergence of postcolonialism and postmodernism in the 1980s that the Indian novel in English experienced its successful proliferation. The novelists started to adopt a sceptical stance towards the privileged status of history as “objective knowledge.” Instead of contesting the grand narratives of European history by writing novels with overt national themes, the new generation of Indian novelists intended to disclose the political strategies behind Western historiographic writing. In other words, history became a subversive literary tool in the hands of postcolonial novelists.
Some of the novels written in this period constitute examples of what Linda Hutcheon termed as “historiographic metafiction.” Hutcheon employs this term to describe novels that “are intensely self-reflective but that also both reintroduce historical context into metafiction and problematize the entire question of historical knowledge” (“Pastime” 54-55). Contrary to traditional historical novels that pretend to provide an unproblematic access to the past in its fullness and particularity, novels that fall in the category of historiographic metafiction undermine this claim for historical truth by exposing the fictive status of history writing. Hutcheon notes,
[h]istoriographic metafiction refutes the natural or common-sense methods of distinguishing between historical fact and fiction. It refuses the view that only history has a truth claim, both by questioning the ground of that claim in historiography and by asserting that both history and fiction are discourses, human constructs, signifying systems, and both derive their major claim to truth from that identity. (Poetics 93)
In this respect, Indian novelists can be argued to be artistically more protean than their Western counterparts since the sceptical stance towards history had existed in India’s cultural heritage long before the advent of postmod...