Subjected Subcontinent

Sectarian and Sexual Lines in Indian Writing in English

by Eiko Ohira (Author)
©2016 Monographs XVII, 274 Pages
Series: Cultural Identity Studies, Volume 30


This book offers a new, complex understanding of Indian writing in English by focusing its analysis on both Indo-Pakistani Partition fiction and novels written by women. The author gives a comprehensive outline of Partition novels in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh written in English as well as an overview of the challenges of studying Partition literature, particularly English translations of Partition novels in regional languages. Featured works include Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ice-Candy-Man, Amitav Ghosh’s Shadow Lines, Meena Arora Nayak’s About Daddy, and Sujata Sabnis’s A Twist in Destiny. The book then moves on to a study of novels by women writers such as Githa Hariharan, Kiran Desai, Anita Desai, and Arundhati Roy, exploring their perspectives on sexuality, the body, and the diaspora.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Part I: Indian Writing in English (IWE), an Overview: Gender and Politics
  • Chapter 1: What is Indian Writing in English?
  • Chapter 2: The Characteristics and the Issues
  • Part II: Indo-Pakistani Partition Novels: Identity Fallen Apart
  • Chapter 3: The Overall Situation and the Issues
  • Chapter 4: Partition Novels before Midnight’s Children: An Overview
  • Chapter 5: Partition Novels after Midnight’s Children: An Overview
  • Chapter 6: Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ice-Candy-Man: Gender and Conspiracy
  • Chapter 7: Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines: Enchantment, Fear, and Hostility aroused by Border Lines and the World Beyond
  • Chapter 8: Midnight’s Children: A Narrative of Narcissist Failure
  • Chapter 9: Meena Arora Nayak’s About Daddy: The Diaspora and Partition
  • Chapter 10: Azad’s Memoir and Sujata Sabnis’s A Twist in Destiny: The Myth of the Founding of India/Pakistan
  • Part III: Women in Indian Writing in English: Sexuality, the Body, and the Diaspora
  • Chapter 11: The Isolated Female Body: Sita’s Daughters and Anita Desai’s Fire on the Mountainand Fasting, Feasting, among Other Novels
  • Chapter 12: Female Bodies in Revolt: Githa Hariharan’s Representation of the Female Body
  • Chapter 13: The Female Body in Jouissance: Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things
  • Chapter 14: Representation of the Diaspora: Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss
  • Postscript
  • Chronology of Works and Authors
  • Bibliography
  • Index of Authors
  • Index of Terms
  • Series index

← x | xi →Preface1


The Rise of Indian English Literature

In 1981, Salman Rushdie published Midnight’s Children, which won the Booker Prize. Rushdie wrote this novel on the Partition of India using post-modern experimental techniques, attempting to revise Indian history. After the publication of this novel, many works of so-called “Indian English literature” were published one after another. As a result, nowadays, Indian English writing constitutes one of the most powerful bodies of postcolonial literature. To get a clear picture of its unique powers, it is necessary to deal with the Partition, which is the major political theme in Indian English literature. In addition, I will examine the uniqueness of women’s physical representations within Indian writing in English.

The Jaipur Literature Festival and Diaspora English Literature

In January each year, Asia’s biggest literature festival is held in Jaipur. This event clearly shows India’s literary culture and the recent blooming of Indian English literature. In the reading sessions, every time authors present ← xi | xii →a non-English text, they read its English translation afterwards. To my surprise, when I attended, the audience applauded the English versions no less than the original text. I could see that English is an indispensable language, shared among people from various parts of India. Rushdie insists on “decolonizing” English, which he sees as the conqueror’s language.2 This will no doubt remain a vital and contentious issue, directly related to the focus of this book. Accordingly, in Part I, I will discuss the definition of English literature and consider the position of postcolonial literature, as well as the problems diaspora writers face.

The Trauma of the Partition

Kishwant Singh’s The End of India was published in 2003, during the period of the Vajpayee government of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which was backed by the Hindu extremist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). As the title of the book implies, secular democracy was at stake, and this continues to be the case. A vicious cycle continues even now in which Hindu extremists, such as RSS and Shiv Sena, attack Christians and Muslims, which induces Muslim counter-assaults, and so on. I myself have encountered some of these terror attacks, as they occur continually around the country. The ones I experienced were the twin bomb blasts at the Gateway of India and Zaveri Bazaar in Mumbai on 25 August 2003, and the terrorist attack at a mosque in Malegaon (northeast of Mumbai) on 8 September 2006. The day following the attack, barricades were removed from the Gateway of India, and the atmosphere of the city remained the same as before. On the day after the terrorist attack in Mumbai, when I took a taxi to a Hindu temple, the driver was excited and told me in a lively way how things went when the bombing occurred. Just one day before, the ← xii | xiii →bomb had exploded in a taxi. But for my driver, earning money was more important than that shocking event. He told me that many of the victims were street children. He also told me how people fell from ruined buildings to the ground near the temple. According to him, it was the eighth bombing of the year. His attitude seemed to be that people in Mumbai cannot take holidays every time terrorists attack.

Still, the longing for union persists. I noted this when I visited Jallianwala Bagh, located in Amritsar in Punjab. This is where about 2,500 unarmed citizens, including Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians participating in a protest, were suddenly massacred by soldiers under the command of Brigadier General R. E. H. Dyer on 6 April 1919. Each corner of the park is surrounded by buildings. When I went through a narrow lane to the park premises, I found a monument with a message stating that Dyer had fired at that point. According to a pamphlet prepared by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting of India, there were 379 fatalities. In the pamphlet, the words of K. S. Duggal are quoted: “This place has become a holy place, a symbol representing the union of Hindus and Muslims, a holy place where Indians fought for their motherland’s freedom.” The irony of this beggars belief. The gap, as I see it, has been filled most compellingly by fiction. On both occasions, news channels like NDTV aired special programs and ran a campaign called “One India”, which sadly rang hollow.

The Partition of India caused numerous conflicts and disputes and traumatized many people. Many displaced families have their own stories to tell. On 15 September 2006 in Chandigarh, Punjab, I met a hotel employee named Kumar (pseudonym). He told me how his grandfather (a doctor) and father escaped from Pakistan. According to him, they left all their property behind, had difficulty in getting jobs, and subsequently yearned for the good old days. He seemed to be torn in a dilemma: wanting to inquire into politicians’ accountability and fearing getting into trouble. On 17 September 2006, I met a woman named Jaya who worked for the feminist publisher Zubaan Books. She told me about a 100-year-old Pakistani who came to India because his son lived there. He insisted to the government that he wanted to die near his son. She said that this man was deported to Pakistan, a very common episode. On 13 September 2006 in Amritsar, I met a college student named Kiran, majoring in history and journalism. ← xiii | xiv →She told me how her grandmother managed to escape from Pakistan at the time of the Partition. She also told me how she learned about abuse against women in her college lectures. But such awareness is still halting. Even among Indian English literature scholars at the University of Delhi, some of whom escaped from Pakistan with their families when they were small, many hesitate to speak Urdu, their native language, because Indian people tend to regard Urdu as a Muslim language. The trauma at losing their native language remains even after sixty years have passed.

This is not a past but an ongoing event. Accordingly, more and more books and films dealing with the trauma of Partition are being produced. On 23 December 2006, the India National Centre showed a documentary film called Khayal Darpan: A Mirror of Imagination, directed by Yousuf Saeed. To make this film, Saeed spent six months of the year 2005 in Lahore, interviewing many classical musicians and researchers, going to concerts, doing research on music education at various educational institutes, and filming musicians and classical music supporters. Behind the film production was Saeed’s ambition to find answers to the questions: “Does classical music belong to a specific religion? Can classical music survive without the Indian government’s support? Did the Partition in 1947 divide traditional culture as well? How does music influence people in the process of their gaining national identity?” (quoted from a handout). Actually, such things are seldom discussed in India. But this film suggests that Pakistanis cannot but question these issues. Here, we can see one profound aspect of the aftermath of the Partition – the fragmentation of a cultural legacy and of national identity. In Pakistan, people are wary of songs with lyrics that reference Hindu tradition, so musicians have to change the names of Hindu deities or even give up playing such songs. Thus Pakistanis have had difficulties in maintaining the musical legacy inherited from India, but musicians persist in finding ways to carry on. This is ever the way with artists.

Writers after Rushdie have also paid considerable attention to such identity issues. It may be no exaggeration to say that Partition novels are the core of Indian English literature. Issues such as gender, displacement, national identity and individual identity are consolidated in these novels. The aim of this book is to achieve a rounded picture of Partition literature. While the Indian government tried to mythologize their anti-British ← xiv | xv →struggle for independence as a “grand narrative”, Rushdie and subsequent writers have tried to deconstruct it. The Partition novels written before the 1970s do not share such a purpose. However, they tell various stories of individuals suppressed by the “grand narrative”, breaking their silence in significant ways. Hence, the stories themselves question the myth of national creation. In Part II, I will summarize Partition literature as a whole and analyse selected major novels.

Finally, I will analyse some of the Indian writings in English in a larger context, comparing them with British novels such as Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, as well as with various other novels that represent the female body in their own unique ways.

The Success of Women Writers and the Current State of Indian Women

Advaita Kala’s Almost Single (2007) is a comic novel describing single career women’s struggles to find partners through websites. One of the characters is a single woman who has gone through a divorce. Another is a male homosexual who gives the heroine advice on things such as how to apply makeup, how to dress and where to go on dates, because she is shy and has little knowledge about dating. Dealing with such issues is a sign of dynamic change in Indian culture. At the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2009, politician and writer Shashi Tharoor tried to justify himself to a female interviewer. It was because in an essay, Tharoor had expressed regrets that fewer and fewer women wear the sari, and the interviewer referred to this as discrimination against women. Fashion is, of course, an important benchmark reflecting culture. Wearing jeans becomes one way to demonstrate a rebellious stance against Indian tradition. Nowadays, in Delhi, women wearing jeans no longer look eccentric. But this tendency alarms conservatives who wish to continue to express the country’s tradition through female fashion.

← xv | xvi →Many years have passed since “new women” who wanted to be free from traditional female roles became commonplace in novels. During the 1960s, Anita Desai and other women writers described female characters conflicted about tradition and paying a price for dreaming of freedom. However, Almost Single has a happy ending in which the heroine’s wish is fulfilled.

On the other hand, newspapers and TV constantly report on discrimination against women, presenting stories of dowry murder, rape, the abandonment or murder of baby girls, child marriage, discrimination against widows, domestic violence, enforcing children and girls to engage in prostitution, trafficking in wives by husbands, and abuse of servant girls. On 14 September 2006, NDTV (New Delhi Television) News, broadcasting in Chandigarh, reported that in Punjab a baby girl who was abandoned and trapped under bricks between houses had been rescued. This was significant because in Punjab the number of baby girls murdered is high, and the population gap between men and women is bigger than in other states.

In addition, the problem of severe abuse against widows has been prevalent since the colonial period. It has been described in many novels and has become a major topic. According to Professor Malashri Lal, the problem is not only something in the past; it remains a current issue.3 For example, in the Sunday Times of India on 31 August 2008 there was an article about the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu gathering held every twelve years, ← xvi | xvii →which reported that many families who joined the festival deliberately abandoned widows there.4

On 6 and 7 November 2008, an international seminar was held by the Women’s Studies and Development Centre at the University of Delhi on the theme of women becoming mainstream in work and political processes. According to a report given at the seminar, most female employees have been sexually harassed, including being raped, by male employees. However, a female Keralese journalist I met at Jaipur in January 2009 said Indian women did not undergo so much abuse as claimed by foreigners. It is true that urban middle-class women enjoy more freedom than before. Accordingly, the gap between these women and those who live in rural parts of India with low incomes is widening, and rural areas have higher populations.

Some novels describe the lives of deprived peasants in realistic ways, such as Kamala Markandaya’s Nectar in a Sieve (1954).5 However, even urban middle-class career women cannot escape the influence of Sita, a symbolic figure representing patience and purity (Sita is the wife of Sri Rama in the Hindu epic Ramayana). Sita embodies the image of an ideal woman in Hindu tradition, and this is a cause of discrimination against women. While Hindu fundamentalists insist on enforcing traditional roles for women, however, some novelists have created a new “body” image. I will examine these unique physical representations in Part III of this book.← xvii | xviii →

1 This is a revised version of a book I published in Japanese, titled Indo Eigo Bungaku Kenkyu: Inpa Bunri Dokuritsu Bungaku to Josei (Tokyo: Sairyusha, 2015).

2 Salman Rushdie, “The Empire Writes Back with a Vengeance”, The Times, 3 July 1982, p. 8.

3 When I stayed in India in 2000, political science students at the University of Delhi told me shocking stories, such as tragic cases of women who were kicked out of their homes and then killed themselves, or who were doused with kerosene and burned to death due to dowry troubles. They told me that such dowry murders occur all the time. In addition, an American woman I met at Khajuraho told me about how she found a high illiteracy rate among rural women. When she had all her valuables stolen, including passport and wallet, and was at a loss, she asked local people to write about her situation in the local language. When she visited various houses and showed them this paper, most women couldn’t read it. She also told me about how she worked as a counselor on a voluntary counselor at a shelter for Nepalese girls who were deceived by the Indian mafia and forced to work as child prostitutes. Underage prostitution is another abiding problem in India.


XVII, 274
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (June)
Indian writing Pakistani Partition fiction Samon Rushdie Amitav Ghosh, Anita Desai Arundhati Roy novels written by women
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2016. XVII, 274 pp.

Biographical notes

Eiko Ohira (Author)

Eiko Ohira is Professor of English and Advisor to the President at Tsuru University in Japan. She is the author of A Study of Wuthering Heights (1993) and has published essays on Rabindranath Tagore’s writing in English and Japanese writing in English in the early twentieth century. She received her MA and the Naruse Award from Japan Women’s University in Tokyo, Japan, and a Certificate of Special Graduation Course with distinction from Mount Holyoke College in the United States in 1979. She has previously been a visiting scholar at the University of Cambridge, UK, and the University of Delhi, India.


Title: Subjected Subcontinent
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299 pages