Though foreign in its origin, English has been adopted in India as a language of education and literary expression besides being an important medium of communication amongst the people of various regions. The beginning of Indian literature in English is traced to the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, by which time English education was more or less firmly established in the three major centres of British power in India – Kolkata, Chennai and Mumbai. Ram Mohan Roy (1774-1833) was the pioneer of Indian writing in English. Roy insisted that for India to be included among the world’s nations, education in English was essential. He, therefore, campaigned for introduction of scientific education in India through the English medium.
Raja Ram Mohan Roy was followed in the early 19th century in Bengal by the poets Henry Derozio and Michael Madhusudan Dutt. Dutt started out writing epic verse in English, but returned to his native Bengali later in life. Toru Dutt’s works including ‘Ancient Ballads’ and ‘Legends of Hindustan’ and Bankimchandra Chatterjee’s novel ‘Rajmohan’s Wife’ have received academic acceptance as the earliest examples of Indian literature written in English. However, the most famous literary figure of this era was Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913 for his book ‘Gitanjali’, which is a free rendering of his poems in Bengali.
Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949) was a great poetess whose romanticism charmed readers in India and abroad. Her ‘Golden Threshold’ (1905) and ‘The Broken Wing’ (1917) are works of great literary merit. Aurobindo Gosh (1872-1950) was a poet philosopher and sage, whose ‘Savitri’ and ‘Life Divine’ are among the outstanding works in English literature.
The freedom struggle resulted in a revolutionary brand of writing that voiced sentiments against the British Empire. Several political leaders from different parts of the country emerged as literary figures such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai, Kasturi Ranga Iyengar and T. Prakasham. English language became a sharp and strong instrument in the hands of Gandhiji, who edited papers like ‘Young India’ and ‘Harijan‘. He also wrote his autobiography, ‘My Experiments with Truth‘, which is known for its literary flair. Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964) stands out as another prominent leader who excelled in writing prose. He is particularly remembered for his ‘Glimpses of World History’, ‘Discovery of India’ and ‘An Autobiography’ (1936).
Mulk Raj Anand, R.K.Narayan and Raja Rao were among the earliest Indian novelist writing in English, who began to write in the early thirties. Mulk Raj Anand (b.1905), best known for his short story ‘The Lost Child’, has written numerous works of prose, poetry and drama. His novels ‘Coolie’ (1933), ‘Untouchable’ (1935) and ‘The Woman and the Cow’ (1960) reveal his concern for the downtrodden and underprivileged in India. R.K. Narayan is another prolific figure in Indian English writing. Most of his work, starting from his first novel ‘Swami and Friends’ (1935) is set in the fictional town of Malgudi, which captures the Indian ethos in its entirety while having a unique identity of its own. ‘Bachelor of Arts’ (1937), ‘The Financial Expert’ (1952), ‘The Guide’ (1959) and ‘Waiting for the Mahatma’ (1955) are his other popular novels. The last of the harbingers of Indian English literature is Raja Rao (1909-2006), whose novel ‘Kanthapura’ (1938), set in rural India, established him as a major figure on the Indian literary scene. Raja Rao’s other three novels are ‘The Serpent and the Rope’ (1960) and ‘The Cat and Shakespeare’ (1965). Nirad C. Choudhuri (1897-1999) was another internationally renowned Indian writer whose autobiography ‘An Unknown Indian’ (1951) catapulted him into a celebrated international author.
Later novelists like Kamala Markandaya (‘Nectar in a Sieve’, and ‘A Silence of Desire’), Manohar Malgaonkar (‘Distant Drum’, ‘A Bend in the Ganges’ and ‘The Devil’s Wind’), Anita Desai (‘Clear Light of Day’, ‘Fire on the Mountain’ and ‘Games at Twilight’) and Nayantara Sehgal captured the spirit of an independent India.
In the 1980’s and 90’s, India emerged as a major literary nation. Salman Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’ became a rage around the world, even winning the Booker Prize. The worldwide success of Vikram Seth’s ‘The Golden Gate’ made him the first writer of the Indian Diaspora to enter the sphere of international writers and leave an indelible mark on the global literary scene. Other novelists of repute during the contemporary times include Shobha De (‘Selective Memory’), G.V.Desani, M.Ananthanarayanan, Bhadani Bhattacharya, Arun Joshi, Khushwant Singh, O.V. Vijayan, Allan Sealy (‘The Trotternama’), Shashi Tharoor (‘The Great Indian Novel’), Amitav Ghosh (‘Shadow Lines’), Upamanyu Chatterjee (‘English August’), Raj Kamal Jha (‘The Blue Bedspread’), Amit Chaudhuri (‘A New World’), Pankaj Mishra (‘Butter Chicken in Ludhiana’), Vikram Chandra (‘Love and Longing in Bombay’), Arundhati Roy (‘The God of Small Things’), Kiran Desai (‘Strange Happenings in the Guava Orchard’), Sudhir Kakar (‘The Ascetic of Desire’), Jhumpa Lahiri (‘Interpreter of Maladies’) are others.
The mid-20th century saw the emergence of poets such as Nissim Ezekiel (‘The Unfurnished Man’), P.Lal, A.K.Ramanujan (‘The Striders’, ‘Relations’, ‘Second Sight’), Dom Moraes (‘A Beginning’), Keki Daruwalla, Geive Patel, Eunice de Souza, Adil Jussawala, Kamala Das, Arun Kolatkar and R. Parthasarathy, who were heavily influenced by literary movements taking place in the West such as Symbolism, Surrealism, Existentialism, Absurdism and Confessional Poetry. These authors used Indian phrases alongside English words and tried to reflect a blend of the Indian and Western cultures.