RAJA RAO WAS THE LAST of the canonical “founding fathers” of Indian English-language fiction to pass away. The triumvirate—which included RK Narayan and Mulk Raj Anand—were all born in the first decade of the twentieth century, and expired softly about a hundred years later. Their lives and careers bridged a century of enormous transformation in India. Wrestling the Indian experience into English, they set the stage for generations of writers who could inhabit the language without feeling out of place.
With so many South Asians now twinkling in the firmament of English letters, it’s easy to forget how new such writing was at the time. Anand’s friend George Orwell described English-language Indian literature as a “strange phenomenon” and a “cultural curiosity.” He doubted that it would manage any lasting significance. “It is difficult to believe,” Orwell wrote, “that it has a literary future.”
His position looks rather ridiculous given the successes of the last fifty years. English-language fiction has safely ensconced itself among India’s various literary traditions. It offers a deeply rutted path for younger writers to follow, bumping along. They no longer need to ask for the validation of Western publishers. The domestic market for Indian English fiction (whether highbrow or “mythological thriller”) is incomparably larger and more established than it was in Rao’s day. English is a natural medium for Indians to express their imaginations to each other, and not simply to readers in the West.