The Writer of Modern Life

Three scholars on the making of Indian literature

Illustrations by
01 February 2017
In The Invention of Private Life, Sudipta Kaviraj draws a link between modern writing and social reform.

EVERY STUDY OF MODERN ART OR LITERATURE, right at the outset, poses for itself the awkward problem of defining what “modernity” actually means. Does it have to do with a particular chapter in human history, or does it concern human sensibility across the ages? Is there a modern way of doing things—of making paintings, writing novels, building cities? Or is modernity only a matter of perception, a way of seeing things? Perhaps it is a bit of both.

Part of the modernist project in twentieth-century Europe—with figures such as Pablo Picasso and TS Eliot at its helm—involved, simultaneously, locating the modern element in ancient poetry and traditional tribal art, and recontextualising it in the present: in the here and now of modernity. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ was a faithful enactment of this modernist outlook, with intermingling echoes—many of them verbatim—of Homer, Ovid, the Bible and the Upanishads. The great poem is like a monument composed of bits and pieces of other monuments. This may be the manner Picasso had in mind when he defined modern art as a sum of destructions—and the title of Eliot’s poem is uncannily in keeping with this definition.

The modern mind feeds on this sort of haphazard cultural transaction. It has a tendency to establish seamless links: between Ovid’s poetry and the Upanishads, for instance; or, as in Picasso’s case, between the dissimilar aesthetics of the French post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne, the Spanish Renaissance artist El Greco and the tribal mask-makers of Africa. To Western modernists, looking to the Orient or Africa for creative inspiration couldn’t have caused any anxiety about borrowing from outside the domain of one’s own heritage. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the European artistic tradition prided itself on being cosmopolitan. Cultural appropriation was considered a very modern trait. It still is.

But modern writers and artists in India—and in other postcolonial countries—have always had to contend with the politics of cultural exchange between the colonised and the coloniser. When the Bengali critic Dineshchandra Sen, in a letter to the British historian EJ Thompson, referred to Rabindranath Tagore as “a European writer of Bengali,” he was articulating a grievance against all cultural renegades. Yet far from being a failing on the part of the postcolonial writer or artist, the urge to cross over is essential to modernity. The scholar Rosinka Chaudhuri, in her 2014 book The Literary Thing—a fascinating study of the beginnings of modern poetry in Bengal—employs an interesting phrase to describe the phenomenon: “creative cross-contamination.” Let there be no doubt: the spirit of modernity is confused, many-hued, contaminated.

How that spirit manifested itself during the nineteenth century in the literary arenas of two of our richest languages—Bengali and Malayalam—is the subject of three recent books on Indian literary history: along with Chaudhuri’s The Literary Thing, Sudipta Kaviraj’s The Invention of Private Life and Udaya Kumar’s Writing the First Person.

“MOST OF INDIAN CRITICAL TALENT has been wasted,” wrote the linguist GN Devy in his well-known 1992 polemic After Amnesia, “in pursuit of theory, much of which has been totally irrelevant to literature in India.” After Amnesia was an attempt to shake up the field of literary studies in this country. Devy’s main allegation against students and professors of vernacular literature was that they were borrowing Western models of analysis that had little relevance in the Indian context, and that they had, on top of that, forgotten their real bhasha heritage.

The interest of Indian literature—“Indian” here being a convenient shorthand for a complex body of work composed in close to a hundred languages—lies in the multiplicity of its histories and sub-traditions. The worst we can do while trying to make sense of this complexity, Devy argues, is to break it down by adopting the “theoretical” approach peddled in India by the coloniser with a view to civilising the natives. English education was exported to the colonies as an instrument of asserting political power. Courses on English literature, for instance, were being taught in India at a time when even British universities had yet to offer them. So, Devy writes, “English became a basic theme in the Imperial enterprise.” This created a demand for critical works and theoretical studies about English literature in the colonies, and produced modern Indian critics reared on literary theories that belonged, in Devy’s view, to an alien culture.

Devy’s uneasy, almost wounded, tone is reminiscent of that of certain nineteenth-century critics from Bengal, and elsewhere in India, who made very similar arguments against paschatyabhav, or Western sensibility. Bengali intellectuals such as Budhev Mukhopadhyay and Dineshchandra Sen, while themselves well versed in Western ideas and languages, remained critical of all bijatiya, or foreign, influence. Many of these critics were champions of vernacular languages. As the editor and essayist Ramananda Chatterjee once wrote, “A foreign literature and foreign tongue, as English is, cannot serve as the medium through which we may know one another and interchange our deepest thoughts and feelings.”

This aesthetic of rejection was not just articulated with reference to the West. Sanskrit, too, cast its great and ancient shadow across the modern literary landscape here, and if there were writers in the vernacular traditions who felt drawn to it, there were always those who took pride in repudiating their Sanskritic legacy. The historian and scholar Sudipta Kaviraj, in The Invention of Private Life—a series of essays on what connected modern Bengali society to its literature—proposes categorising phases in Bengali literature as “Sanskrit-near” or “Sanskrit-distant.” Whereas the medieval Vaishnava poets, such as Chandidas or Jnandas, aimed for a “rupture with traditional high culture,” in its later, Hindu-revivalist phases, during the late nineteenth century, Bengali literature became more Sanskrit-near, in that its vocabulary was Sankritised—as in Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s famous paean to Mother India, ‘Bande Mataram.’

But Kaviraj’s proposed binary is an overly simplistic way of looking at literature. It doesn’t, for example, shed much light on Bengali writers who maintained a conflicted relation with both English and Sanskrit, who were Sanskrit-near and Sanskrit-distant at once. Tagore is a case in point here. His translations of Kalidasa served as Sanskrit-distant interpretations of an era that was Sanskrit-near. And what of the possibility of expressing a Sanskrit-distant sensibility in a language that is Sanskrit-near? Is it not feasible to write in a particular language and yet draw from cultures and traditions foreign to it? Bankim himself wrote his first novel, Rajmohan’s Wife, in English. Then, as he went on to become a more self-consciously Bengali writer, he was still rebuked by the critic Nabinchandra Sen for being too concerned with telling Western-style stories of love and adultery. “Always the monotonous English novelistic husband-wife and mistress’s love,” was Sen’s summary of a typical Bankim tale.

Kaviraj draws an important link between modern writing and social reform—in particular religious reform. “From the standpoint of a comparative sociology of literature,” Kaviraj writes, “the Vaishnava break with tradition contained elements similar to the ruptures with traditional forms and literary practices that led to the early modern turn in Western literature: it was based on a crucial intervention in the religious sensibility of the society and was associated with fundamental religious and social reform.”

But even if the Vaishnava movement is comparable to Western literature, it differs from the later tradition in being more concerned with social uplift than individual experience. In the nineteenth century, we see the modern spirit in India consciously, and militantly, diverging from its Western counterpart in this regard. The modern man here is quite unlike the lonely aesthete that the French writer Charles Baudelaire portrayed in his seminal essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life.’ Rather, he emerges as a conscientious social being. The distaste for the masses, the rabble—the “perspiring philistine” in Robert Louis Stevenson’s sneering phrase—is non-existent in Indian modernity. The two leading lights of Bengali modernism—Bankim and Tagore—were both driven by ideas of social reform, and were concerned about their fellow citizens.

The sociological approach to modern literature is the most problematic aspect of Kaviraj’s otherwise fine book. Its central idea-that modernity is more a matter of institutions that sensibility- doesn’t quite hold water.

The reformist ethos, then, is coterminous with modernity in India. But Kaviraj makes a much bigger claim than that. Instead of reading the literary masterpieces of nineteenth-century Bengal as just reflective of modern sensibility, he places them at the very centre of the process of modernisation of Bengali society. Kaviraj’s assertion is that the

literary work charms us into modernity—by placing fictive models in front of our imagination. People decide to act in modern ways because they think it is good to live like that; and some of the great impulse towards this emulation comes from literature: it happens through the combined effect of novelistic narration, lyric poetry’s exploration and painting of emotions and interiority, and the introspective grandeur of the autobiographic story.

This, of course, raises the question, not unrelated to what we began with: how does one act in “modern ways”? Through creating modern institutions, argues Kaviraj. He attributes the demise of Vaishnava poetic forms, such as the padavali, to a lack of institutional support and a general waning of the reformist impulse. “As long as the impulse for religious reform remained active, experimentation in literary technique and aesthetic structure continues,” Kaviraj writes.

He then states,

modernity is a matter not simply of sensibility but much more emphatically of institutions. If these sensibilities do not enable the crystallization of institutions that can provide them with practical, material form, they tend to decay, disperse, and eventually succumb to the silent but immensely powerful undertow of orthodoxy.

Here, too, the author deals in simplifications—and his attempt throughout the book is to resolve the complexities of his subject rather than highlight them. (The Sanskrit-near, Sanskrit-distant duality is another instance of this.) Early on in The Invention of Private Life, Kaviraj declares, “I have … tried to read literature, at least literary texts, with questions of social theory in mind.” This sociological approach to modern literature is, I submit, the most problematic aspect of Kaviraj’s otherwise fine book. Its central idea—that modernity is more a matter of institutions than of sensibility—doesn’t quite hold water. Consider the potential critique of this position in Dipesh Chakrabarty’s 2011 lecture ‘The Muddle of Modernity,’ in which the historian draws a distinction between modernity and modernisation. “In what sense is modernization,” Chakrabarty begins by asking, “that is to say the ‘global industrial order’ ... the same as modernity?” And later, he states more directly: “One’s sense of being modern did not always follow the chronology of modernization.”

The distinction Chakrabarty makes between modernity and modernisation is important. It suggests that the emergence of modern sensibility doesn’t have to correspond to the development of modern institutions in an age, or to the “chronology of modernization.” Besides, to say that without the support of an adequately evolved sociopolitical edifice the modern sensibility is condemned to “decay” and “disappear” is to ignore the historical conditions of the sensibility’s emergence in India; it is to forget that the modern sensibility came to the fore precisely in the absence of any institutional support, and—as in the case of the Vaishnava poets—in the face of a disproportionately powerful “undertow of orthodoxy.” The demise of modernism in Europe, too, transpired in spite of all the institutional backing. The Dadaists, that group of European anti-art poets and painters who emerged around the time of the First World War and who were, in more ways than one, a product of European modernity, used the term “modern” only disparagingly. The Dada movement was a response to European modernism and a potential threat to it. So it may be argued that the modern sensibility carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction. And that it re-emerges when you least expect it.

IN 1871, the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who had just turned 17, wrote in a letter to one of his friends: “The first study of the man who wants to be a poet is the knowledge of himself, complete.” The autobiographical register has been dominant in many of the more successful modernist works of literature from the last hundred years—from Rimbaud’s poems to James Joyce’s Ulysses to Virginia Woolf’s diaries. Earlier, over the eighteenth century, the Bildungsroman­­—a novelistic genre concerned with charting the protagonist’s psychological growth—had become very popular among both readers and writers. Indeed, the tradition of autobiographies proper as well as autobiographically-inflected writing in the West has a very rich history and, one could say, is enjoying a rather fruitful present.

Udaya Kumar’s central thesis is that a majority of personal narratives in Malayalam were attempts to portray the self in relation to society.

The autobiographical form arrived in India at around the same time, in the nineteenth century, when our writers were becoming aware of the novel as a genre. During that century and the next, in what is now Kerala, some of the most influential literary works, written in Malayalam, were executed in an overtly autobiographical vein. And yet, as the scholar Udaya Kumar reminds us in Writing the First Person—which is about Malayalam literature and the manifestations of modernity in it—these autobiographies all shared a peculiar blind spot, which rendered the inner self completely out of focus. In other words, these works were unconcerned with what Rimbaud called the knowledge of the self. Kumar writes,

Indian autobiographies from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries especially those written by men, rarely speak of private interiorities: self-narration in them is seldom confessional intimacy … the distinctiveness of the individual life is not the focal point of most such texts. It is, in fact, as if the author’s distinctive life were a pretext for revealing something more typical or larger.

Kumar talks about “Indian autobiographies” here, not restricting himself to ones in Malayalam, because his point applies generally across the literatures of modern Indian languages. In the title essay of The Invention of Private Life, Sudipta Kaviraj makes exactly the same point with regard to autobiographies written in Bengali. Describing the writer and Brahmo intellectual Sibnath Shastri, whose autobiography, Atmacharit, was published in 1918, he writes: “Shastri’s autobiography differs sharply from both Augustine and Rousseau … Shastri never adopts the tone of introspective intimacy, never reports the states of his consciousness psychologically. His text is strikingly unemotional and unpsychological.”

n The Literary Thing, Rosinka Chaudhuri shifts the spotlight on to some of modernity’s marginal figures.

Both the title and approach of Shastri’s autobiography are conspicuously similar to those of another one, published in Kerala in 1969 by the writer and reformist EMS Namboodiripad, who twice served as the chief minister of the state. The book was called, somewhat misleadingly, Atmakatha, and its readers were, according to Kumar, left sorely disappointed. “Apart from the early chapters, which dealt with [Namboodiripad’s] childhood,” he writes, “Atmakatha focused almost exclusively on the social and political movements in which the autobiographer had played an active role … The ‘I’ of Namboodiripad’s narrative was a political activist whose life outside the political domain had little relevance for the story.”

Prominent Malayalam authors and poets before Namboodiripad, such as the nineteenth-century anti-caste campaigner Narayana Guru, who preached the gospel of humanism, were similarly preoccupied, Kumar tells us, with questions of jati (caste), matam (religion) and samudayam (community). These writers were setting new paradigms for society, using literature as a tool for social empowerment. And the autobiography served as a most effective genre for this purpose, since it allowed its authors to lead by example and inspire change in their readers by casting themselves as model citizens.

Much like Namboodiripad’s Atmakatha, Writing the First Person too comes with a somewhat misleading title. Kumar’s book is much more than a study of the autobiographical form. He is interested in exploring how writers and reformists in the old kingdoms of Travancore and Cochin (later incorporated into the state of Kerala) embarked on their varied experiments in what he calls “self-narratives.” The category includes stories and poems written about selves other than the work’s author. Kumar’s central thesis is that a majority of personal narratives in Malayalam were attempts to portray the self in relation to society. And the Malayalam novel, which Kumar’s study is partly concerned with, was integral to this modern awakening.

Kumar’s book is a valuable contribution to literary studies in India inasmuch as it takes the focus away from modern Bengal—which has dominated the field so far—and charts out new habitats of Indian modernity for the benefit of the Anglophone reader. But the author has a tendency to lapse into academic jargon. Writing the First Person would have been a more enjoyable and enlightening book without such dead phrases as: “nodal point for these eclectic processes of re-signification”; “corposthetic dimension of images”; and “woman as the subject of affective-erotic investment.” My personal favourite in this department is Kumar’s definition of a kiss as “the signal performative of conjugal acceptance.”

THE IMPACT OF THE EUROPEAN NOVEL on modern writers in India cannot be overemphasised. In Rosinka Chaudhuri’s The Literary Thing, we’re given a glimpse of Tagore as a teenager, reading a Bengali translation of Paul et Virginie by the eighteenth-century French novelist Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. The book had a formative influence on him, and Tagore is quoted as saying that it “first introduced me close at hand to nature and man.” The novelist Chandu Menon, who wrote Indulekha—one of the first ever novels in Malayalam, published in 1889—once went so far as to confess that the book was, effectively, the product of all his botched attempts to translate an English novel, Benjamin Disraeli’s Henrietta Temple. Upon realising the formal difficulties of translating from English to Malayalam, Menon decided to compose—and Udaya Kumar quotes him directly on this—“a novel book in Malayalam more or less in the manner of English novel books.”

In his essay about CV Raman Pillai, Kumar talks of how the author first composed some of the more “descriptive passages” of his 1918 novel Ramaraja Bahadur in English, and then translated those into Malayalam himself. “His style,” Kumar writes, “was tied to a modern multilingual condition in which English, Sanskrit, Tamil, and Hindustani were vital elements.”

This particular aspect of Indian modernity—the modern writer’s multilingual condition—doesn’t figure as pressingly in Kaviraj’s The Invention of Private Life. Kaviraj’s readings and analyses of writers such as Bankim and Tagore are informative and scholarly, but his concerns are more sociopolitical than literary. Hence we get theories regarding the origins of Indian nationalist thought in Bankim’s ‘Bande Mataram’ (the song, by the way, comes from his novel Anandamath, and its massive adoption is another example of how impactful the novelistic form has proved). The attention is always drawn away from the text and to the world.

Rosinka Chaudhuri’s The Literary Thing comes in as a sort of antidote to such an academic style of criticism, which is mainly history-writing or social commentary in the garb of literary criticism. It approaches literature with the old-fashioned belief in the virtues of close reading, and it reminds us that the critic’s job, first and foremost, is to look at language.

Chaudhuri’s book should be required reading for anyone who wishes to engage with what she, at one point, refers to as “India’s many modernities.” Her aim is to shift the spotlight away from the giants of modern Bengali literature and on to some of the tradition’s more marginal figures. The significance of the marginal, the contingent and the ephemeral to the modern aesthetic is hardly ever talked about, especially in relation to Indian literature. In the opening epigraph to her book, Chaudhuri quotes from Baudelaire’s ‘The Painter of Modern Life’: “the minor poets too have something good, solid and delightful to offer.” These are the words that lead Chaudhuri to some largely forgotten writers from nineteenth-century Bengal, such as Iswarchandra Gupta, Nabinchandra Sen and Hemachandra Bandyopadhyay; as well as to that abandoned celebrity of literary Bengal, Michael Madhusudan Datta.

The Literary Thing, by Rosinka Chaudhuri, approaches literature with the old-fashioned belief in the virtues of close reading, and it reminds us that the critic’s job, first and foremost, is to look at language.

Chaudhuri’s essays, although each focusses on a single subject, throw into sharp relief the process of creative interchange—or cross-contamination—that was occurring between writers, critics, poets and journalists at the time in Bengal. Often the same person was performing all these roles simultaneously. A prominent example was Iswarchandra Gupta, who ran an influential journal, SambadPrabhakar; translated parts of Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason into Bengali; and whose poetry of everyday reality—he wrote about goat meat and topse fish, among other things—Chaudhuri compares to the “found objects” and “readymades” of the French artist Marcel Duchamp. Gupta was also writing satire long before Bankim published his fabled takedowns of the babu. His scathing poem about the noises an English couple makes while eating dinner with forks and knives, quoted in Chaudhuri’s book, is highly original, experimental and memorable. It is composed mostly of what Chaudhuri refers to as “sound-images,” capturing the “foreignness of the English dinner table”:

Kat kat kataakat tak tak tak
Thuno thuno thun thun, dhak dhak dhak
Cupa cupa cup cup, cop cop cop
Sup supu sup sup, sap sap sap
Thakaas thakaas thak, phas phas phas
Kas kas tas tas, ghas ghas ghas
Hip hip hurre, daake hol klaas
Diyaar myadaam iu tek dis glaas.

The joke is damaging, and therefore funny. Especially remarkable is the way Gupta dovetails the final sentence—“Dear madam you take this glass”—with the rest of the nonsense noise he has created, suggesting that the listener is alienated as much by the English language as by the non-verbal sounds—there’s hardly any difference between the two, in fact. Chaudhuri memorably identifies all this as someone experiencing “history as noise.”

Chaudhuri’s chapters on Gupta, Michael Madhusudan Datta and Tagore’s juvenilia in particular achieve something essential to good criticism: getting the reader interested in the texts being discussed. She looks at literature directly, rather than through the prism of sociology or political theory. In addition, Chaudhuri’s book realigns our perspective a little, so that the marginal begins to occupy the very centre of the field of view. That’s what Baudelaire did for the artist Constantin Guys, without even naming him, in ‘The Painter of Modern Life.’ And that’s what the critic of modernity is, I believe, called upon to do. Not to historicise, not to define modernity, but to locate the modern element in all of literary and art history, where it sits hiding in plain sight.

An earlier version of this piece mistakenly described correspondence between the critic Dineshchandra Sen and the historian EJ Thompson as correspondence between Sen and the historian EP Thompson. The Caravan regrets the error. 

Vineet Gill is a Delhi-based journalist currently working with the Sunday Guardian. His writings have appeared in Guernica, Himal Southasian, Open and the Hindu Business Line, among other publications.

Keywords: literature novel modernism autobiography reform