South Asia

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

South Asia

Chelva Kanaganayakam

As a category within the larger corpus of postcolonial literature, the South Asian novel has become increasingly significant in the past few decades, particularly in the West. In general terms, the corpus refers to fiction written by all writers whose origins can be traced to South Asia. It would, for instance, include writers from the Caribbean, the Fiji Islands, South Africa, Malaysia, and Singapore who were part of the Indian and Sri Lankan diaspora from the eighteenth to the early part of the twentieth century. Writers such as V. S. Naipaul (Trinidad) and K. S. Maniam (Malaysia), for example, would be considered part of this larger corpus. Apart from the fact that such a classification becomes too unwieldy for critical analysis, it is hardly possible to arrive at anything resembling a conceptual frame while dealing with such multiplicity. For the purpose of the present entry, the term “South Asian” refers to novels written by authors who either live in South Asia or are a part of the recent diaspora from South Asia. While there is a significant body of fiction written in various South Asian languages such as Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, and so forth, the present entry focuses specifically on novels written in English.

The South Asian novel, then, brings together the work of authors who are often identified nationally rather than regionally (see NATIONAL). Indian, Sri Lankan, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi authors, for example, make up the majority of this body. Some of them left their countries after independence, and are now part of the diaspora. Referring to them as a composite group has both advantages and obvious problems. In historical terms, India and Sri Lanka have had a long colonial history. Their literary traditions in English go back to the nineteenth century, if not earlier. Pakistan came into existence in 1947 with the partition of India. Bangladesh is of more recent origin in that it was created when East Pakistan broke away from West Pakistan in 1971. Diasporic authors from South Asia now live in various metropolitan cities, such as London, New York, and Toronto, and while they are often identified in relation to their hyphenated status, they too are very much a part of this corpus. Their novels have, for the most part, insistently located themselves in their ancestral lands, and that alone brings them within the fold of South Asian literature. The frame that encloses all these authors is a common Indian origin, although Sri Lankan migration goes back too far to be a natural fit. The divisions are often based on religion, ethnicity, and national history. South Asian novels do have a family resemblance, but even while one asserts commonalities, one should be aware of striking differences. Religion and secularism are useful markers to establish intersections, although any generalization tends to quickly become a simplification.

Unlike writing from the Caribbean, these various literatures have no clear originary moment or historical context to connect them. Apart from the chronological disjunctures that separate one nation from another, the novels produced by these authors are far too diverse in relation to thematic focus to fit easily in any mold. At some level it might be more meaningful to trace their literary histories nationally rather than regionally (see REGIONAL). A South Asian literary history remains a daunting task. Diasporic writing, one might argue, functions within its own discursive framework, although these texts too tend to fall naturally into national models. It is possible to assert that the experience of exile forms a common thread in all South Asian diasporic novels, but that does not completely overshadow national or hyphenated affiliations.

That said, it might be possible to claim that the South Asian novel in English has not been, for the most part, anticolonial in its orientation. Even the novels that were written in the decades immediately before or after independence do not concern themselves with colonialism or with the struggle for freedom. A case in point is G. V. Desani's groundbreaking novel All About H. Hatterr (1948), which, despite its date of publication, has very little to do with anticolonial struggle in India. To say this is not to deny that novels written during this time do not entirely eschew nationalist concerns. Raja Rao's famous work Kanthapura (1938) is about a village transformed by Mahatma Gandhi's (1869—1948) nonviolent struggle against the British. The politics of colonialism is not totally absent from South Asian fiction, but it remains marginal to the overall body of literature.

The reasons for this lacuna are not entirely clear, since anticolonial struggle in India and Sri Lanka has a long and illustrious history. The reluctance among authors writing in English to focus on this struggle could well have something to do with the particular trajectory of colonial history in South Asia. Although English was introduced to India long before the nineteenth century, it was really in the first half of the nineteenth century that English came to be foregrounded as the language of governance, and an elaborate system of education in English was created by the East India Company. The famous Minute of Thomas Macaulay (1800—59) produced a class of people whose nationalist aspirations were combined with a commitment to the values of modernity. Although acts of resistance against the British gathered momentum in the twentieth century, there was also a measure of accommodation that made anticolonial sentiments less intense than in other parts of the world. This particular ambivalence, together with other factors, may have shaped literary history in ways that were not especially anticolonial. When South Asian authors began to write in the 1930s, the end of colonialism was already in sight and modernity had blunted the force of anticolonial sentiment.

While modernity is a central element in the South Asian novel, it is also true that any conceptual framework for understanding this corpus needs to acknowledge the presence of an ontology that has been shaped by religion. If there is one element that distinguishes the South Asian novel as a whole, that would be its religiosity. The South Asian novel is not overtly religious, however, in that gods and temples do not figure prominently in fiction. Apart from Raja Rao's The Serpent and the Rope (1960) and a few other novels, one might be hard pressed to find texts that are overtly concerned with religion. But the majority of novels are framed by a religious sensibility in that a religious ontology forms a subtext in this writing. The social and cultural dimension of religion is quite central to the South Asian novel. The precolonial world in South Asia was shaped by religion in that the temple, in the medieval period, became a node for organizing social and economic structures. Relations among people at the level of family and community were determined by the presence of the temple and its conventions of purity and pollution. All aspects of human life were organized in relation to the temple, although the social connections were not always apparent or fully acknowledged. A temple-based culture is very different from a culture that is fundamentally religious. It is the former that remains a strong presence in shaping the ethos of the South Asian novel. Religiosity takes different forms, depending on context and national or diasporic affiliation, but it continues to exert a powerful influence. Contrary to the assumptions of Orientalist thought, what is central to South Asia and its literature is not institutionalized religion but a particular way of life that is framed by religion. Although Hinduism may have triggered this particular kind of religiosity, the presence of religion can be traced to the novel in Pakistan and Sri Lanka as well.

Colonialism brought with it ideas of modernity, secularism, democracy, liberalism, and so forth. While these were central to South Asian society, the precolonial ontology was never entirely erased. The precolonial survived and coexisted with modernity. It is the combination of these two that one encounters most often in the South Asian novel. Depending on circumstances, the emphasis could fall on different events and historical conditions, but often the texture of the novels accommodates a combination of the precolonial religious ontology and the British secular worldview. The phrase “tradition and modernity” has often been used to define much postcolonial fiction, but in South Asia it takes on a complex role. That said, each nation evolved its own literary history, with India being the dominant player in South Asian fiction.


Serious writing in English in India began in the 1930s, although it is possible to claim that Rajmohan's Wife, written in 1864, was the first novel. The novels of the latter part of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth were often imitative, and while they are of historical interest, they do not come across as significant writing. The one exception might be the novella Sultana's Dream, which appeared in 1905. Closer to a short story than a novel in its length, it demonstrates a control over form and a preoccupation with gender that are remarkable for the time.

After this the actual originary moment in the Indian novel was in the 1930s with the work of Raja Rao, R. K. Narayan, and Mulk Raj Anand. The three authors represent three different strands in the Indian novel, with Rao expressing the mystical, religious dimension, Narayan the fusion of the religious and the secular, and Anand the downtrodden and the subaltern. All three authors' first novels appeared in the 1930s—Rao's Kanthapura in 1938, Narayan's Swami and Friends: A Novel of Malgudi in 1935, and Anand's Untouchable in 1933. All three continued to write novels for the next five decades, and they remained the pioneers of the Indian novel. Rao's frame of reference is deeply religious and mystical, and his major work, The Serpent and the Rope (1960), demonstrates a deep engagement with what it means to be a Hindu. Although the novel concerns itself with exile and hybridity, the major thrust is to establish the idea of Indianness as fundamentally religious and mystical. Of particular interest is the preface that Rao wrote for Kanthapura, which remains a precise statement about the distinctiveness of South Asian writing and the role of authors in expressing a different sensibility. Narayan, in most of his novels, focused on his imagined town called Malgudi, a place where the secular world of colonialism coexisted and sometimes collided with religion. His vision was benign, and he paved the way for a whole group of writers who molded his style to suit their own purposes. A more recent novel such as Kiran Desai's Hullaballoo in the Guava Orchard (1998) is a direct descendant of the Narayan mode of social comedy. Anand was more insistently a social critic, and his novels are often a strong indictment of caste and class in Indian society. He too has been deeply influential in shaping a particular strand of the Indian novel. Many of the recent novels that focus on marginalized groups can be considered direct descendants of the Anand mode.

The next phase in the Indian novel begins with the Partition of India, an event that involved violence on an unimaginable scale. On the eve of independence, the animosity between Hindus and Muslims became increasingly pronounced, resulting in widespread violence and the displacement of millions of people. Among the novels that were written about this moment, the best known is Khushwant Singh's Train to Pakistan (1956), a short but powerful work about the polarization of a once-peaceful village along religious lines. The conflict itself has continued to preoccupy novelists, and even a more recent novel such as the Pakistani writer Bapsi Sidhwa's Cracking India (1991), first published under the title Ice-Candy Man in 1988, is concerned with the complexity and violence of the Partition.

The one anomaly in a chronology of the Indian novel is the 1948 publication of G. V. Desani's All About H. Hatterr, a wonderfully irreverent and comic text that deals with the life of an Anglo-Indian who decides to “go native.” The style of the book is decidedly modernist, and his work is probably closer than that of any other Indian novelist to the spirit of James Joyce (see MODERNIS). Written very much along the lines of a PICARESQUE work, this novel remained almost unnoticed until the 1980s. Arguably a major work, it had no followers until Salman Rushdie picked up Desani's style in 1980.

The three decades that followed the Partition were a period of exciting activity, with a number of writers carving out their own areas of interest but mainly concerned with issues of social dislocation, personal identity, political instability, and so forth. The worlds they created are largely secular and ostensibly modernist, but a religious sensibility informs their work. The best-known writer of this period is possibly Anita Desai, whose novels combine an awareness of social and political conditions with a deep understanding of psychological concerns. Her Clear Light of Day (1980), for instance, is at once about the breakup of a family and about class, religion, and the role of mythology in personal and collective lives (see DOMESTIC). Kamala Markandaya is equally important, and her more overt realism in novels such as Nectar in a Sieve (1954) deals with the collapse of traditional ways of life and the gradual migration of people to the cities. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Heat and Dust (1975) won the Booker Prize and remains a major work that deals with issues of identity and exile that are germane to Indian writing. A quest novel of sorts, it embraces the colonial and postcolonial in remarkable ways.

The watershed moment in the South Asian novel occurred in 1981 with the publication of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. A diasporic author, he produced with this novel a very different mode of literary representation. Not only is he overtly political and quite radical in his novel, he produced a work that was far more self-conscious and skeptical about grand narratives than anything written before. Rushdie has been a shaping influence for many writers, and even those who choose not to adopt his experimental style are much more sensitive to the difficulty of asserting absolute truths about nations or groups. With Rushdie, the South Asian novel became much more cosmopolitan, political, and experimental. In the post-1980 phase there is a much greater preoccupation with “public” events.

The period from Rushdie to the publication of Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things (1997) forms another distinctive phase in the Indian novel. This period saw the rise of the international novel, with Indian authors being published and receiving recognition in the West. The more significant writers of this period include Allan Sealy, Amit Chaudhuri, Upamanyu Chatterjee, and Vikram Seth (see PUBLISHING). All these writers have their own styles, from the picaresque mode of Sealy to the Victorian triple-decker mode of Seth. Sealy's The Trotter-Nama (1990) is probably the first major novel after All About H. Hatterr to focus its narrative on the history of Indo-Anglians. Seth's A Suitable Boy (1993) goes back to the mode of nineteenth-century realism but shapes it to capture to multiplicity of India in the 1950s. Chaudhuri is among the finest of contemporary writers, and his Afternoon Raag (1993) has a lyrical and subtle texture that is distinctive. This was one of the most productive periods for Indian authors, both local and diasporic, and the work they produced is as impressive for its range as it is for its depth and complexity.

Roy's The God of Small Things is clearly a product of the Rushdie phase, but the novel goes a step further in that it combines irreverence and comedy with a real concern for exploring alternative social and cultural structures. If Rushdie's intention is to take things apart, Roy is more concerned with picking up the fragments and putting them back together in a different way. Many of the recent writers, again local and diasporic, have demonstrated a similar stance.

The burgeoning of the Indian novel is now best seen in the West, where a number of major authors live and write. Among the best-known authors, Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Manil Suri, Anita Desai, Rohinton Mistry, Shashi Tharoor, David Davidar, Suniti Namjoshi, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Bharathi Mukherjee have been prolific. All are important in their own right, and the novels they produce do not conform easily to any model. It is possible to argue that their distance, spatially and temporally, from India has given them a particular perspective. In general—and this can be seen very clearly in Ghosh's The Hungry Tide (2005) and Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss (2006)—there is skepticism about grand narratives and a desire to look at historical forces from the perspective of the downtrodden and the marginalized. The Hungry Tide is a fine example of the kind of work that shows a deep commitment to understanding the lives of the downtrodden while moving beyond tendentious writing. Particularly among diasporic Indian authors, the quest novel has become increasingly common. There is clearly a distinction between the conventional realism of Mistry and the overt experiment of Namjoshi, but in general the thrust has been to create complex structures that would enable a depiction of “home” and belonging from a diasporic perspective. Namjoshi occupies a unique niche in having chosen a fabulist mode that is deceptively simple. Her Conversations of Cow (1992) is a short but impressive novel that reads like a children's story but deals with complex issues of sexuality, migration, and religion.

Contrary to expectations, second-generation novelists who were born in the West or grew up there have chosen, for the most part, to write about an imagined India rather than the world that is most familiar to them. While the reasons for this decision may well be complex, the fact is that they gravitate naturally to the world that they have heard about rather than the one they have experienced. Lahiri's The Namesake (2003) is not entirely set in India, but its preoccupations remain very Indian. Padma Viswanathan's The Toss of a Lemon (2008) is a more typical case in point; Viswanathan goes back to the history of a family of Brahmins in South India. The sensibility that informs these authors' work is subtly different from that of the first-generation authors, but they too insist on seeing the old world from a new perspective.

Sri Lanka

Compared to Indian writing, the Sri Lankan novel is smaller in scope. The beginning of this corpus can be traced to the 1930s, but it really came into its own in the 1960s with the work of James Goonewardene, Punyakante Wijenaike, and Rajah Proctor. The first two have been particularly prolific, and novels such as Goonewardene's A Quiet Place (1968) and Wijenaike's The Waiting Earth (1966) continue to be read. In retrospect, however, the novels of the 1960s appear to be essentialist in their constant recourse to the rural world as a source of strength and beauty. The novels of this period are competent, but they do not convey a sense of authenticity. It was after the Insurgency of 1971 that the Sri Lankan novel came into its own, with several authors finding a new niche for their novels. The ethnic conflict between the Tamils and the Sinhalese which intensified in the 1980s added a further dimension of uncertainty and urgency to literature, with the consequence that several authors now produced a number of complex novels. Rajiva Wijesinha, Carl Muller, and Tissa Abeysekara are probably the best-known novelists who wrote from Sri Lanka. Wijesinha is easily the most experimental of the three, but all of them have written with a strong sense of a changing era. The majority of Sri Lankan novelists are part of the diaspora.

Among diasporic authors, the best known are Romesh Gunesekera and A. Sivanandan (England), Michael Ondaatje and Shyam Selvadurai (Canada), and Chandani Lokuge (Australia). Gunesekera's Heaven's Edge (2002), one of his finest works, not only explores the mindless violence in Sri Lanka but also demonstrates the difficulties of writing about this world with objectivity and accuracy. Equally political, Selvadurai's Funny Boy (1994) was acclaimed in the West for its frank and valuable treatment of both politics and sexuality. Predominantly a realist, Lokuge, in novels such as Turtle Nest (2003), writes about the experience of exile and the emotional consequences of return. Sivanandan's single novel, When Memory Dies (1997), brings together several generations to explore the complex path that led to the conflict between the Tamils and the Sinhalese.

The best-known Sri Lankan novelist is Michael Ondaatje, whose The English Patient won the Booker Prize in 1992. In Anil's Ghost (2000) he locates the narrative in a turbulent period of recent Sri Lankan history. A remarkable narrative about mindless violence and repression in Sri Lanka, Ondaatje's novel, despite all its pessimism, is framed by a commitment to a Buddhist vision. Like the Indian diasporic novel, Sri Lankan fiction continues to be preoccupied with politics, although notions of belonging and dislocation figure prominently. If some form of Hindu thought and ontology shapes much of Indian fiction, it is equally true that Buddhism frames much of Sri Lankan literature. In that sense, many of the recent novels that are ostensibly about politics are shaped by a sense of religion.


The notion of Pakistani writing is not easy to chart, particularly because some of the early writers lived in India before moving to Pakistan after the Partition. That said, among the early works Ahmed Ali's Twilight in Delhi (1940) is significant for its range and depth. It is the first novel to deal with Muslim life in colonial India with real sensitivity. Adam Zameenzad is another writer whose works combine formal experiment (see FORMALISM) with a real concern for the conditions in Pakistan. During its first three decades, however, Pakistan did not produce much fiction in English. This could well be a consequence of a national policy that established Urdu as the sole official language. In addition, Pakistan's political history has been very different from India's, and that might well explain the relative paucity of literary production specifically in the novel in English. While writing from Pakistan has begun to flourish in recent years, the majority of Anglophone novels by Pakistani writers are written in the diaspora.

The most accomplished writer from the earlier phase is Zulfikar Ghose, whose The Murder of Aziz Khan (1967) is set in Pakistan during the early days of independence. Many of his subsequent novels have been set in South America, although the subject matter appears to suggest that the reality of Pakistan is not far from his mind. Bapsi Sidhwa's novels are more centrally concerned with Pakistan, although she tends to look at this world from the perspective of the Parsi community. She is best known for her novel Ice-Candy Man, a powerful novel about the violence of the Partition, told through the perspective of a young Parsi girl. Another writer of note is Tariq Ali (England), whose Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree (1992) is a moving evocation of Muslim Spain, told through the intersecting lives of several characters.

In the last two decades the novel from Pakistan has experienced a growth spurt, and now there is a substantial corpus that can be considered significant. Hanif Kureishi's The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) provides a sensitive and sometimes disturbing depiction of the South Asian experience in England. More recently, several diasporic authors from Pakistan have published notable works, each one distinctive in its own way, but all concerned with issues of nationalism, belonging, marginality, and the representation of Pakistan. Politics continues to play a dominant role in Pakistani writing, although it is woven into the lives of a broad spectrum of characters. Kamila Shamsie's Kartography (2002), Nadeem Aslam's Maps for Lost Lovers (2004), Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), and Mohammed Hanif's A Case of Exploding Mangoes (2008) provide a good sampling of contemporary Pakistani fiction. Many of these have been controversial, but all of them are significant works that attempt to grapple with the local conditions and international profile of Pakistan.


Bangladesh has been relatively slow in its literary output. The only author to gain international recognition is Monica Ali, whose Brick Lane (2003) created considerable controversy over its depiction of Bangladeshis in London.

As a corpus, the South Asian novel in English has now become increasingly visible in South Asia and in the West. The increase in readership has resulted in greater sophistication and range among authors, and there is a much greater acceptance of this body of writing in South Asia than ever before. Within the broad framework of contemporary or postcolonial fiction, the South Asian novel remains distinctive in its evocation of a particular ontology.

SEE ALSO: Ancient Narratives of South Asia, Comparativism.


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2. Kanaganayakam, C. (2002), Counterrealism in Indo-Anglian Fiction.

3. Mukherjee, M. (1971), Twice Born Fiction.

4. Paranjape, M. (2000), Towards a Poetics of the Indian English Novel.

5. Rahman, T. (1991), History of Pakistani Literature in English.

6. Salgado, M. (2007), Writing Sri Lanka.