Nicholas Grene: In Conversation with Pawan Kumar
Of Warm Encounters:
The Reception of Indian Literature in English in Europe
Pawan Kumar, a doctoral scholar at the Center for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, interviews Prof Nicholas Grene, Professor Emeritus of English Literature, Trinity College, Dublin. Prof Grene introduced Indian English Literature to Ireland, and has been engaged in teaching IEL in Irish as well as Indian universities. He published R K Narayan (Northcote House, 2011), and was in India to offer a course on comparative Indian and Irish Literature at Ashoka University, New Delhi. Excerpts from the interview:
Pawan Kumar: You have been engaged in teaching Indian English Literature in Ireland and India; in fact, you can be credited with the introduction of Indian English Literature at Trinity College, Dublin. Why and how did this happen?
Nicholas Grene: I have always been very fond of the novels of R K Narayan and I also got interested and read some other Indian literature in English. I also knew I couldn’t really comment on or teach other Indian writers who write in other Indian languages because I don’t speak them. So I had the idea of constructing a course that would include a number of Indian writers in English along with some European writers who write about India, to put together a course which I call “India in English,” thus trying to pair two halves: the way in which European writers/writers coming from outside the country imagined/responded to India, put alongside the way in which Indian writers working in English adapted English forms and the English language to specific Indian purposes.
Pawan: Did you face any challenges or opposition in introducing the course? And what was the response of the students when it was first introduced?
Nicholas: There was certainly no opposition to my introducing it. At Trinity, our students study just English or English with one other subject, following compulsory courses for the first two years. They are taught postcolonial literature in their second year, wherein they get some exposure to a few Indian writers, generally Salman Rushdie. So there is a bit of a platform there. In the third and fourth years, they opt for courses which are offered by individual staff members in their own area of expertise and one can do anything one wants. I was the only person teaching Indian English Literature. Students are generally taught through seminars, so we generally enroll around twenty students, and as far as I can remember, it was always full. There were always enough students who wanted to take the course.
Pawan: What kind of Indian English Literature did you read before framing the module, and did you also include critical articles/essays written by Indian authors or critics on Indian English Literature?
Nicholas Grene: I found it quite hard to obtain Indian critics who were writing about Indian English Literature in those days. Not much was available online as it is now. However, there were a couple of books that I found very helpful; particularly, a book by Richard Cronin called Imagining India. He teaches in Scotland, but he had been married to an Indian woman and had spent quite a lot of time in India. I also prescribed An Illustrated History of Indian Literature in English.
Pawan: Have you read any classical Indian text, - epics or mythology, I mean?
Nicholas: Well, I have read versions of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, but these are adapted versions.
Pawan: Do you consider them to be fiction, or as itihasa (history), as some Indian critics would maintain?
Nicholas: I regard them as saga as one might read the Odyssey or the Iliad. But Indian epics are much bigger and elaborate, and have much more significance for Indians than those texts do for the Greeks and the Europeans. In fact one of the things that rather disappointed me was R K Narayan’s version of the Ramayana, which is not very impressive.
Pawan: What was it that disappointed you about Narayan’s version of the Ramayana?
Nicholas: I think it is very simplified, and the kind of talent Narayan has for writing novels in English, which has to do with the sheer simplicity of his prose, so beautiful, such limpid kind of prose, did not seem to exactly work with the Ramayana. It is such an ornate and complicated epic, and I think Narayan’s is a limited and reduced version, and obviously does not do justice. In fact, what could do justice to something of that scale?
Pawan: You mentioned including authors who have based their work on India and Indian themes in addition to Indian authors. What difference do you find in their representation of India?
Nicholas: In almost every case, the authors writing on India (from the outside) seem to be trying to come to terms with the difference and strangeness of India/Indianness. Rudyard Kipling’s Kim is somewhat of an exception, which is where I started. Kipling thought of himself as an Indian author, and he does appear in An Illustrated History of Indian Literature in English, but nonetheless, there is a strong imperial agenda, a kind of racism written right through Kim. It is a book I very much like and still enjoy. I once said to a postcolonial critic friend of mine, ‘I was reading Kim and I really enjoyed it!’ and she said, ‘You enjoyed Kim?’ Obviously one is not supposed to enjoy Kim! But I think Edward Said’s introduction to Kim is very appreciative of the book. In some way I think it’s an interesting imaginative effort on the part of a non-Indian writer to get inside the feeling of it, and Kipling had this sentimental attachment to India. But coming to E M Foster’s A Passage to India, one can find the effort of an English writer to come to India and understand an India he cannot easily deal with. I also include William Dalrymple City of Djinns, a travelogue where a young author comes to Delhi, a famous city, with his wife, and is quite explicit about his Scottish descent. A good bit of it is about entertaining a reader through his funny experiences in the city, like his relationship with his landlady, and so on. For students reading him in Ireland, it was a way down into the history of Delhi, which I found quite helpful. However, some students were resistant to him and thought he was complacent and supercilious. I am of the opinion that it is an enjoyable book.
Pawan: Coming to the issue of representation of India in the writings of Indian authors, do you see a shift in the way India has been represented in Raja Rao’s Kanthapura and V S Naipauls’s An Area of Darkness, and the handling of the sense of disillusionment by the two writers?
Nicholas: Indeed, I do see a shift. Kanthapura is written by someone who is really a Gandhian. For me, what was most interesting about it was the experiment with the language; because he is subconsciously following an Irish model there. He is trying to write a kind of Kannada flavoured English as J M Synge wrote in Irish flavoured English. And in his preface, Raja Rao made it quite clear. It did seem to me striking, a sophisticated writer writing in France, trying to ventriloquise through a semi-oral narrative using this dialect as Synge did. I suppose the way in which the novel ends, there is definitely a sense of disillusionment. But certainly it comes from a very different position from Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness. Because Naipaul is coming to India for the first time, with the inheritance of his ancestors. So for him, in a sense, India is clearly an exotic land. The essays were originally written for the New York Review of Books and it all seems to me so odd, because he was clearly sent by the New York Review of Books to write these articles because India was under the period of the Emergency and they wanted a firsthand account of what was it like under the Indian Emergency. However, the Emergency is hardly mentioned in the book and it is more about Naipaul trying to come to terms with the dislocation between this inheritance and the actuality that he meets. I found the rendering of his visit to the village in the chapter called “The House of Grain” very beautiful and evocative. Simultaneously, I think it is quite piercing, as I saw it as a kind of political critique of the class system within the village, and lyrical in its evocation of feelings. I think the last essay in the book is very suggestive of a kind of nausea or self-hatred in Naipaul: he can’t come to terms with India. But at that stage, he does not blame India for it, as he does in his later works. So, I would see the two writers as fundamentally different because it is about where they are coming from and where they are in their own careers.
Pawan: How did you tackle the usage of colloquial Indian terms in Indian English Literature, particularly Kanthapura. Also, how did you familiarise yourself with the nuances of Indian society and culture, particularly the caste system in India?
Nicholas: In the case of Kanthapura, there is an Oxford University Press edition of the text, with a glossary at the back, which is very helpful. As far as the caste system is concerned, I think in a way, fiction tends to explain that as it goes along. Certainly in Kanthapura, one is quite aware of the caste system and the text explains the different layers of social status as it proceeds. So, it wasn’t that much of a problem, like Narayan who writes from the perspective of Tamil Brahmins and culture, and furnishes very many details about it.
Pawan: As you say, you read Indian authors like Raja Rao, R K Narayan, Jhumpa Lahiri, Salman Rushdie, and V S Naipaul, to name a few. So one is tempted to ask, who is your favorite Indian English author and why?
Nicholas: R K Narayan is very much my favorite Indian author and I have written a book on him. So obviously, I am committed to him. I suppose I am fascinated by the sort of self-contained world he created in Malgudi and the subtlety, in a certain sense, his imaginative range. I think he manages to use a substrata of Indian myth and folklore and manages within what appears to be very contained, almost comic framework of Malgudi. He experiments with a quite fierce, in a sense, feminist novel in The Dark Room. He has an Emergency novel in The Painter of Signs. I think The Guide is his greatest novel. I think it’s an extraordinary study, and the way in which he creates the psychology and the way in which two different narratives interact: that seems to me an astounding fictional achievement! Something like A Tiger from Malgudi and the way it uses the sort of demon figure from Indian mythology. Also, for me, as someone who doesn’t know any contemporary Indian language, much less Sanskrit, and hasn’t read the original Mahabharata, it was a way of having access to someone like that who has an imaginative range and who is able to render it within the range. To me it is written in beautifully clear and subtle English, helped a little bit by Graham Greene, who edited virtually all of Narayan’s novels before they went to press.
Pawan: Please shed some light on your recent work on R K Narayan and why you chose to write on Narayan.
Nicholas: He is the only Indian author that I felt I have read enough of and felt that I should immerse myself in his works. I went to spend two months in Mysore to try to get some sense of the background, changed as the city is from Narayan’s time, and I did think I got that! One of the peculiarities about Malgudi is that nobody knows where it is! It is not Mysore clearly, but I think it has some characteristics of the particular area of Mysore where Narayan lived. I do love writers who take us back to the same places, fictional places, and I got hooked on the books, and I have got a complete collection in English and Indian edition of the texts. There is no other Indian writer for whom I have that sort of a feeling. Even in relation to Narayan, I was very doubtful because I didn’t have access to the sources of Indian mythological material that he had. Still, he seems to me to write sufficiently within a kind of English literary tradition, and there’s nobody remotely like him in English otherwise, I think.
Pawan: Time and again people have compared Narayan and Thomas Hardy because they think Narayan created an imaginary place called Malgudi like Hardy’s Wessex. Do you think Narayan was influenced by Hardy in any sense?
Nicholas:I do not think so because they are totally different writers. Hardy, after all, is actually using real places and giving them fictional names, and they are quite identifiable. For instance, his Wessex is actually the West Country. Whereas, what Narayan is doing is really creating a fictional world which cannot be fixed to a certain place: sometimes, Malgudi seems like a tiny little town, and sometimes, it is quite a big town, depending on what he wants to do with it! Quite often, it seems to be timeless, you cannot really date it. In The Guide, it is very definitely about the pre-colonial period, the coming of the railways showing how a small community grows and develops, and by the end, when the protagonist is doing his fast and you have television companies coming from America: I think he is able to use that very flexibly in a case like that to show an onset of modernity in a quite small community.
Pawan: Have you noticed a shift in the response of the academia and readership towards Indian English Literature in Europe and the far West?
Nicholas: In the 1980s, Midnight’s Children completely changed the landscape. Of course before this, there were people who would be reading Narayan, or people who would be conscious of Raja Rao, the earlier generation of Indian writers writing in English. But not only did Midnight’s Children win the Booker, but also became an international success. It opened up a different degree of awareness in people. It suited the postcolonial landscape in a way nothing else had previously done. It was a novel which could be placed alongside Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. It was a major postcolonial novel. I think from then on, Indian Literature in English became a part of the international post-modernist phenomenon, with Rushdie as its central figure.
Pawan: So do you think after the success of Midnight’s Children, the European perception about India changed, before which India was almost always seen as a spiritual, exotic land?
Nicholas: Yes I think that changed. I mean the scale and success of Midnight’s Children partly lay in the fact that it uses mythology, but within the context of a clearly contemporary urban world. It is literally postcolonial because the novel starts at the moment of India’s independence. Written in a kind of sophisticated postmodern style, it opens up India as an imaginative sphere that has nothing to do with an old, spiritual, exotic India or India as a seat of esoteric wisdom.
Pawan: In the contemporary scenario, there are lots of Indian writers writing in English who are quite visible on the international platform after the acclaim that Rushdie received. For instance, Amitav Ghosh, Aravind Adiga, Jhumpa Lahiri, Arundhati Roy, to name a few. Your comment on this?
Nicholas: One of the things that seems odd to me is that apart from this change which started with Rushdie, which in a sense licenses an authorised postmodern Indian literature, Indian writers have also been able to get away with writing really old fashioned nineteenth century style novels. For example, A Suitable Boy, goes right back to a kind of Victorian style novel, Rohinton Mistry writes completely classic, traditional English prose. It seems as though paradoxically, because of Rushdie upping the game for all Indian writers, you get a whole generation of postmodern Indian writers experimenting in various forms. It’s as though there is a kind of tolerance for a writer like Vikram Seth writing a very old fashioned-style book. I cannot account for that, but it is an interesting phenomenon.
Pawan: Lastly, I would like to know your opinion on the future of comparative work, especially comparative literary research, on India and Ireland.
Nicholas: I have always been bad at forecasting trends, seeing what the future may bring in terms of scholarship. Clearly, there is still work to be done such as you yourself are doing on the impact on Yeats of Indian philosophy. There have been relatively few scholars, certainly very few in the West, with the competence to take this on. The case of Raja Rao suggests to me that there may be openings for the comparative study of Indian English and Hiberno-English used for literary purposes. The course I have been teaching in Ashoka, where we have looked at Indian and Irish texts focused on Partition and its violent aftermath in the two countries, is an area that might be pursued further. Both Ireland and India, on their hugely different scales, have undergone a process of modernisation in which people have moved from small rural communities to cities and had to adjust to that often traumatic and alienating change. There is an opportunity for research in comparing the impact of this process in the literature of the two countries. There are probably many other potential fields of comparative study, but those are the ones that come most immediately to mind.