South Asian diaspora literature in Britain
By Alastair Niven
The Indian sub-continent has fed the Western literary imagination since ancient times. It was usually seen in the one of three ways – exotic (Andrew Marvell, in his most famous poem: ‘Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side/Shouldst rubies find’) or primitive (Othello’s ‘f one whose hand,/like the base Indian, threw a pearl away’) or innocent. It was not until the start of the nineteenth-century that a new view of India took root with translations made available of the Upanishads and other ancient semi-scriptural texts. As the century proceeded British readers had the opportunity first to read the foundation writing of the sub-continent’s culture and then to hear for the first time the voice of contemporary India through the lyrical poems of the briefly fashionable Toru Dutt.
In any history of Indo-Anglian writing Bankim Chander Chatterjee’s Rajmohan’s Wife (1864) is taken as the starting point, but diasporically we cannot refer to any writing from the sub-continent before the twentieth-century.
Even then it is stretching a point to include Rabindranath Tagore (who sometimes wrote in English, though usually in Bengali), Sarojini Naidu, Jogendra Singh or Romesh Chander Dutt. Like great political leaders Gandhi and Nehru, authors of autobiographies, these people inter-connected with Britain, and some of them visited it, but they never lived here for substantial period.
The 1930s and 1940s
In the 1930s Mulk Raj Anand was based in London or in Buckinghamshire. Married to Kathleen van Gelder, he looked set to remain in England, feted by literary society. He returned to India in 1948 as much because of his marriage ending as because of the lure of the newly independent India. The works for which he is still best-known were written in England: Untouchable, Coolie, the ‘Lalu’ trilogy of The Village, Across the Black Waters and The Sword and the Sickle. This is not reflected either in the subject matter or the setting of these novels. The major exception is Across the Black Waters, with its depiction of the slaughter of sepoys in the Flemish trenches of the Great War. This story, still less well known than it deserves to be, was partly provoked by Anand’s encounter with pacifist thinking in the London of the mid 1930s.