Indian writing in English has a relatively short but highly charged history.
In 1793, Sake Dean Mahomed wrote perhaps the first book by an Indian in English, called The Travels of Dean Mahomed. However, most early Indian writing in English was non-fictional work, such as biographies and political essays.
This began to change in the late 1800s, when famous Indian authors who wrote mostly in their mother tongue, began to try their hand at writing in English. In the early 1900s, Rabindranath Tagore began translating his works from Bengali to English.
Starting in 1917 Dhan Gopal Mukerji wrote many children’s stories that were set in India. He was awarded the Newbery medal in 1928 for Gay Neck, the Story of a Pigeon.
Soon after, a new generation of Indian authors, who wrote almost exclusively in English, hit the bookshelves, beginning in 1935 with R.K. Narayan’s Swami and Friends and Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable. Raja Rao’s Kanthapura followed in 1938.
What made Narayan’s, Anand’s and Rao’s writing different from the Indian authors before them was that their stories were about the contemporary man on the street.
There was also an Indianness to their work, in terms of the words they used and their style of writing. This resonated with the new, but growing ranks of Indians reading English literature.
Their works were the forerunners to the magnificent diversity of Indian writing in English that we see today.
There are basically three ways of approaching Indian English poetry: as an extension of English poetry, as a part of Commonwealth poetry, or as a part of Indian poetry. The first approach is largely outdated today, while the second, though still current, has gradually yielded to the third.
When Indians first began to write poetry in English, they were outnumbered by Eurasians and Englishmen who also wrote poetry on Indian subjects. Hence, poetry by Indians was not distinguished from poetry by non-Indians. Indeed, both types were published by the same publishers, the Indian subsidiaries of British publishers such as Longman or Heinemann, or by the English newspapers and magazines of India, which were usually owned and edited by Eurasians or Englishmen. Most Indian English poets were educated by Englishmen in Anglophone schools; like other English poets, they studied English literature. Because India was a part of the British Empire, Indian English poets did not have a strong national identity, and their early efforts were considered to be a tributary of the mainstream of English literature. Anglo-Indian literature was the term used to denote their poetry, the implication being that this was English literature with Indian themes. The term referred primarily to the literature produced by Englishmen and Eurasians in India, though it also included work by “native” Indians. The first scholarly work on Anglo-Indian literature was Edward Farley Oaten’s A Sketch of Anglo-Indian Literature (1908), a condensed version of which was included in the Cambridge History of English Literature (1907-1914), edited by A. C. Ward. Oaten’s primary concern was with English writers such as Jones, Sir Edwin Arnold, and Rudyard Kipling, and Oaten made only passing reference to Indian writers in English. With India’s independence from Britain and the withdrawal of the British from India, Anglo-Indian literature, defined as literature written by Englishmen in India, more or less came to an end. On the other hand, literature by Indians in English increased, gradually evolving an indigenous tradition for itself. Consequently, Oaten’s approach became untenable in dealing satisfactorily with Indian English literature. Nevertheless, it continues to have a few adherents—among them George Sampson, who, in The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature (1970), contends that Indian English literature is a tributary of mainstream English literature.
Another approach, initiated by scholars in England in the early 1960’s, is to consider Indian English literature as a part of Commonwealth literature or the literature of former British colonies and dominions such as Canada, Australia, the West Indies, and countries in Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, based at the University of Leeds, has done much to foster such an approach. Later, academics in the United States attempted to see Indian English poetry as a part of a global literature in English. The journal WLWE: World Literatures Written in English represents this approach. These approaches are fairly useful when the focus is large and the scholar is located in the United States or the United Kingdom, but they share the problem that the literatures of the various nationalities have little in common and often belong to different traditions: for example, Nigerian English literature and Australian literature. Nor does such an approach serve very well when one literature, such as Indian English poetry, is studied in depth. It then becomes clear that labels such as “Commonwealth literature” or “world literature in English” simply help to provide a forum for these literatures in Western academia and...
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