The Literature of British India

J. K. Buda


At the height of its glory, the British Empire encompassed nearly a quarter of the earth's land mass and a quarter of its population. Of all its possessions, none was more precious than India, the 'jewel in the crown' of Victoria's Empire. Other possessions may have been larger or more profitable, but with none of them was there the same deep relationship as that which existed between Britain and India, a relationship whose essence was so perfectly captured by James Morris:

India was different in kind from the rest of the Empire — British for so long that it had become part of the national consciousness, so immense that it really formed, with Britain itself, the second focus of a dual power. If much of the Empire was a blank in British minds, India meant something to everybody, from the Queen herself with her Hindu menservants to the humblest family whose ne'er-do-well brother, long before, had sailed away to lose himself in the barracks of Cawnpore. India was the brightest gem, the Raj, part of the order of things: to a people of the drizzly north, the possession of such a country was like some marvel in the house, a caged phoenix perhaps, or the portrait of some fabulously endowed if distant relative. India appealed to the British love of pageantry and fairy-tale, and to most people the destinies of the two countries seemed not merely intertwined, but indissoluble. [1]

This unique relationship found expression in a large body of English literature, so large as to constitute a genre in itself.

Here in Japan, this body of literature has been almost totally ignored by scholars. Perhaps this has been due to a failure to recognize the relationship noted above, or perhaps it may be attributable to a narrow and exclusive interpretation of what is meant by 'English Literature'.

Whatever be the case, any attempt to introduce the literature of British India demands at least some familiarity on the part of the reader with the subject matter of the genre. Of the thousands of fictional works, [2] and the tens of thousands of non-fictional books written about India, the overwhelming majority deal with the interaction between the small British community in India and the march of historical events in the sub-continent.

The following introduction to the literature of the British Raj is, therefore, prefaced by two summaries of the historical and social backgrounds to nearly three centuries of British involvement in India.

Historical Background

The British arrived in India almost as an afterthought. Founded by royal charter in 1600, the East India Company had as its primary aim a share of the valuable spice trade with Indonesia. Finding the Dutch firmly in control, it turned its attention to a secondary market — India.

The British were not the first Europeans to reach India. In the 4th century BC the conquering armies of Alexander the Great penetrated deep into the Punjab, and opened up trade routes that lasted for over 800 years. The fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Arabic power in the Middle East virtually cut off Western Europe from India, and it was not until the 16th century that Portuguese explorers began to re-establish contact. With their superior maritime technology and proselytizing fervour, the Portuguese soon carved out a large empire for themselves in the Indian Ocean. In 1580 Portugal was annexed to Spain, and in 1588 the Spanish Armada was routed by the British navy. The collapse of the Portuguese Empire opened up the way for other European nations to sail into the Indian Ocean in search of trade and profit.

Frustrated in its attempts to enter the lucrative Indonesian spice trade, the East India Company turned to India, where the Mughal Empire was only too happy to have the British rid it of the last unwelcome vestiges of Portuguese naval power. In return, the British were given trading rights and allowed to establish factories.

The 17th century was one of slow but steady consolidation. France and other European countries also obtained similar land and trading rights, but the sheer size of the market, and the relatively small scale of the enterprises, did not lead to any real competition.

The situation was dramatically altered by the War of the Austrian Succession. In 1742 England and France found themselves at war with each other, and this purely European conflict sparked a period of parallel military and political confrontation in India. Both sides made full use of political intrigue and machination, entering into fragile alliances with local Indian rulers, backing rival claimants to vacant thrones, and generally manipulating the confused domestic Indian situation of the time to their own advantage. After a period of initial setbacks, the military genius of Robert Clive turned the tide in favour of the British, and by 1761 the French presence had been totally neutralized.

The most important gain of this period of Anglo-French conflict was the establishment of undisputed British power in Bengal. Concerned only with the preservation of their trading post in Calcutta, the British successfully countered an armed attempt to oust them. In so doing, they found themselves the de facto rulers of a vast province many times the size of England. The ultimate aim of the East India Company, however, was trade and profit, not territorial expansion. Using its position of military superiority, the Company wrested numerous commercial concessions from the local ruler. The most important of these was a total exemption from the tax levied on private trade by members of the Company. With this concession, the way was opened up for the amassing of huge private fortunes. The gross excesses of the next twenty years prompted the passage of William Pitt's India Act of 1784, which set up dual control of commerce and administration. Ultimate political power was taken from the hands of the East India Company, and the British government accepted a share of responsibility for its involvement in India.

The new century saw further changes in the pattern of British expansion in India. Hitherto, all political and economic activity had been motivated by purely mercenary considerations, but gradually there emerged a hesitant awareness of a new role: that of welding the many kingdoms of the fragmented Mughal Empire into a single, peaceful whole, and bringing Western civilization to this vast sub-continent.

By the middle of the 19th century many of these goals had been achieved. Almost all of India was either under direct British control, or under the rule of pliable native kings rendered impotent by the British monopoly of foreign affairs and military power. The great Land Settlements surveyed and apportioned land rights, and fixed the taxes due from each holding. For the first time in Indian history, the historical claims of Indian peasants to their own land were recognized in law, and an end was put to the corruption of the old tax-gathering systems. Unfortunately for the peasants, most of the tax assessments were unrealistically high, and wholesale forfeiture of land led to the creation of a new wealthy Indian land-owning class.

In 1857 the apparent tranquillity of the Indian sub-continent was shattered by the revolt of a handful of Indian soldiers in Meerut. The revolt quickly spread to Delhi, where the renegade soldiers proclaimed the decrepit titular Mughal Emperor as their leader. The Indian Mutiny lasted for only a few months. The last pockets of resistance were finally put down in 1859, but not before two new names had been etched irrevocably on the psyche of the British nation: Lucknow and Cawnpore, the first a synonym for British courage, and the second the apotheosis of Indian perfidy.

The causes of the Mutiny will, perhaps, remain forever a matter of controversy and conjecture. Even today, there is disagreement on the scale and significance of the revolt. What is clear, however, is the effect the Mutiny had on all subsequent relations between Indians and Englishmen. Even whilst the British army was exacting a bloody toll of reprisals in India, the government in London was hastily pushing through measures to ensure that such a revolt never took place again. The Government of India Act of 1858 transferred the remnants of the power of the East India Company to the Crown, and in the same year a royal proclamation changed the direction of British policy in India. There was to be no more annexation of Indian kingdoms, no more westernization of Indian society or culture. The initial anger of the British in India was replaced with distrust and disinterest, and the small Anglo-Indian community turned in upon itself.

The relative stability and steady economic progress of the latter half of the century were marred by paranoid fears of Russian incursions in the north, and consequent involvement in the humiliating debacle of the Second Afghan War. The occasional efforts of Whitehall liberals to grant Indians a measure of self-determination in the affairs of their own country were greeted with fierce local antagonism. The Ilbert Bill of 1883, which was to have ended discrimination in the legal system, and given Indian judges the power to try Europeans, was totally emasculated as a result of the violent outcry from the white community. The tide of history was turning, however, and the attempt to partition Bengal in 1905 led to such an upsurge of organized Indian protest that the measure was finally revoked in 1911. In many ways, the Bengal crisis reflected the new political reality of India: the triangular conflict of interest between the British administration on the one hand, and the emerging Hindu Congress and Muslim League on the other.

The First World War found Indians shelving their differences and animosities, and joining wholeheartedly in the war effort. Expectations that their sacrifices would bring the reward of limited independence from a grateful Crown were dashed, however, when the Rowlatt Acts of 1919 extended existing emergency war-time powers. The Government of India Act of December 1919 was an attempt to pacify the outrage that ensued, but it did not come soon enough to avert the Amritsar Massacre.

Led by a young Gujarati lawyer called Mohandas Gandhi, the organized protests against the Rowlatt Acts reached a climax in April, with riots and demonstrations in the Punjab. The army was called upon to restore order, and on the 13th of that month a contingent of soldiers led by General Dyer opened fire on a crowd of 10,000 Indians gathered in Amritsar. When the shooting was done, over 1,500 civilians lay dead or wounded. Dyer was relieved of his command, but remained a hero in the eyes of British admirers.

As Gandhi's campaigns of civil disobedience gained impetus, the British began to make reluctant concessions, allowing Indians to occupy a limited number of administrative posts, and espousing a policy of dual government. This policy of 'dyarchy' culminated in the Government of India Act of 1935, which offered a new constitution and a wide franchise. Members of both the Hindu Congress and the Muslim League were divided as to whether to cooperate or not, but finally the decision was made to put up candidates in the first elections to be held under the new constitution. Of the 1,585 seats contested, Congress won 716 seats and absolute majorities in four states, whilst the League garnered 109 seats in Muslim-dominated areas. Thus was born the first elected Indian Congress, and a brief period of uneasy cooperation with the British rulers began.

The Second World War intervened, and altered the course of modern Indian history. The British unilaterally declared India at war, without taking the trouble to consult Congress on its opinion in the matter. After some heart-searching indecision, Congress ministers resigned en masse and refused to cooperate with the British. As the Japanese advanced ever closer, Gandhi called upon the British to 'Quit India', and let the Indians come to a non-violent peace settlement with the Japanese. Gandhi's expectations of a Japanese victory, and the dawn of a new era in Asia, were shared by members of the Indian National Army, a small body of Indian prisoners-of-war recruited by Subhas Chandra Bose and persuaded by him that the future of an independent India lay in military cooperation with the Japanese. The INA was soon disillusioned, and abandoned by the Japanese, it was virtually annihilated at the Battle of Imphal. The Japanese advance on India was checked, and Congress hopes for a speedy British withdrawal from India again seemed to recede.

The end of the war and the election of a new Labour government in Britain, however, produced a new political climate, and the rush to independence began. Attempts to hand over the reins of power to a united and peaceful India proved fruitless, and on the 15th of August 1947, the two new states of India and Pakistan were born.

Social Background

For the merchant administrators of John Company, as the old East India Company was familiarly called, India was the adventure of lifetime. An overland journey of months across Egypt, Turkey, or Persia, years of constant battle with disease and the Indian climate, and, for those that survived, an eventual return to malaria-ridden retirement in England. During the long years spent in India, England and the constraints of English society must have seemed very far away indeed. In those early years before the Mutiny, racial prejudice was unheard of, and many English [3] bachelors took native wives or mistresses, thought nothing of dressing in local costume, and enthusiastically immersed themselves in a study of Indian languages, religions, and customs. The fortunate ones returned to England outrageously wealthy men, and in retirement built themselves strange Indian-style follies in the rural tranquillity of the English countryside.

Two seemingly unrelated events changed all this. The Indian Mutiny poisoned any mutual respect that there might have been between Indians and Englishmen, and in its aftermath, direct control of administration from Whitehall rigorously defined the role of every British official in India. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, on the other hand, cut the journey time between the two countries from 3 or 4 months to as many weeks, and India ceased to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Englishmen could now return to England on regular leave, and could bring back their wives and children with them to India. Victorian society, with all its prejudices and paraphernalia, arrived with a vengeance, and took root in the unlikely soil of India. From this transplantation flowered a strange and exotic plant.

British society in India was characterized by its Janus-faced nature. To the outside world, it presented a united and aloof front, but within itself, it was fragmented by snobbery and social prejudice.

At the top of the social ladder were the administrators. Although the highest post of Viceroy was often occupied by bumbling incompetents, the day-to-day management of a nation of 300 million Indians was entrusted to the 1,300-or-so members of the elite Indian Civil Service. Entry into the Service was by competitive examination, and the standards demanded were astonishingly high. The ICS had its own hierarchy of posts and appointments, but for most people the ICS will forever be associated with the District Officers. Whilst the highest echelons of government led an august and rarefied existence in the palaces of Bombay or Calcutta, to the District Officers fell the solitary task of venturing into the vast hinterland of India, collecting taxes, administering justice, and showing the flag. One of the great enduring images of the British Raj is that of the young District Officer, wise beyond his tender years, seated at a camp table in front of his jungle tent, and dispensing justice and vernacular wisdom to the assembled villagers around him.

Next to the ICS came that other mainstay of British society in India, the Army. Before 1857, most regiments consisted of Indian soldiers commanded by British officers, but after the Mutiny the number of wholly British regiments was increased as a precautionary measure. Although army life had many rewards for the officers of both Armies, [4] there was little joy for the enlisted British soldiers serving in India. The constant spectre of another Indian revolt kept them totally separated from any possible fraternization with the natives, and barrack life was one long, bitter fight with routine, tedium, and the Indian climate.

Far below the ICS and the Army in social standing came the third and last element of British society in India, the merchants and businessmen. However wealthy or influential they might become, they were disparaginly referred to as 'box-wallahs', an epithet derived from the sample cases of travelling salesmen.

The British community in India also had its own caste of outsiders: those who, either through choice or necessity, did not fit into the tripartite framework of recognized society. There were, for example, the planters — fiercely independent men who spent most of their working lives isolated from their compatriots, single-handedly ruling the vast private kingdoms of their jute, indigo, and tea plantations. And then there were the missionaries, who turned their backs on the Raj, and strove to bring Christianity, education, and medicine to even the smallest and most isolated jungle hamlet.

In addition to the complex vertical stratification of British society in India, there was another dimension of social consciousness. When their term of office or employment ended, most people packed up and returned to England, but for a few, for those born and raised there, India was home, and in some cases had been for three or four generations. For most such Anglo-Indian [5] families, the almost mandatory period of childhood education in England did little or nothing to weaken their ties with India, and there existed a distinct sense of social superiority to other, less permanent residents.

Whatever their social status, whatever their family background, the lives of all British people in India were regulated by two great impalpables — the geography and the weather. The development of one of the earliest and greatest railway systems in the world did much to overcome the first of these, but there was little or nothing that could be done about the second.

The life of the British Raj progressed to the rhythm of three distinct seasons: Cold Weather, Hot Weather, and Rains. The summer monsoons were a period of lethargy and disease, and took by far the greatest toll of British lives. The autumn saw the advent of the 'Cold Weather', a purely relative appellation which meant little more than 'bearable' as opposed to 'unbearable'. The months from September to March were a time of great social activity, perhaps the only months when the weather made possible such pastimes as riding, shooting, and dancing. It was also the time for visitors to arrive from England. Administrators dreaded the annual nuisance of 'fact-finding' Whitehall politicians, whilst bachelors of all ages welcomed the arrival of the 'fishing fleet' — young girls of marriageable age in search of a husband.

The grim realities of Indian life made marriage a virtual impossibility before late middle age. Enormous initial debts had to be paid off out of meagre earnings, promotion to ranks that would allow the financial luxury of married life had to be awaited with patience, and the grudging approval of superior officers was an infractible social prerequisite. By the time bachelors could begin to consider looking around for a wife, they were already at least in their late thirties or forties, with high social status, a healthy income, and a guaranteed pension upon retirement — a splendid proposition indeed for any matron seeking a good match for her daughter.

Towards March the round of dances, parties, and gymkhanas began to tail off, and the visitors made their way home to England. British India, meanwhile, prepared itself for the ordeal of the Hot Weather. And an ordeal it truly was, in an age when the only method of air-conditioning was that of circulating air through water-soaked hurdles called 'tatties'; a system which, when working efficiently, was capable of lowering the temperature inside a room by all of one or two degrees. In such heat, work was unthinkable, and the officials of the Raj led those of the British community as could afford such a luxury in the annual trek into the delicious coolness of the mountains, to spend the hot weather in the pine-scented seclusion of the hill stations.

In the south, Ootacamund provided a refuge from the heat of Madras and the Carnatic, whilst in the north, the Himalayan foothills offered a profusion of small hill stations such as Mussourie, Naini Tal, and Darjeeling. The queen of them all, however, was Simla. Here it was that the Viceroy and his entourage came to stay, and with them the entire apparatus of British government. For several months of each year, a small village perched on improbably steep hillsides in the shadow of the snow-topped Himalayas became the capital of India.

Once the mould of British society in India had been set, the innate conservatism of that society ensured that there were few if any major changes over the eighty or more years to Independence.

With the advent of that Independence in 1947, the Anglo-Indians were faced with the choice of 'staying on', or pulling up roots and making a fresh start in the United Kingdom or some other part of the Commonwealth. Most decided to leave India, and time has taken its inevitable toll of the few that chose to remain.

The Literature of the British Raj

The administrators of post-Mutiny India were often disparagingly called 'competition wallahs', a reference to both the stiff entrance examinations of the elite ICS, and to a host of other practical and theoretical examinations that determined subsequent promotion and status. Such an examination system produced an administrative class of the highest intellectual calibre, and in an age when it was almost de rigueur to write one's memoirs upon retirement, the civil servants, judges, and generals of the British Raj left behind a legacy of wit and erudition. Countless such biographies and memoirs now lie gathering dust in forgotten libraries.

For more than two hundred years now, literate Western society has chosen to express its truths and realities in the form of the novel, and it is upon that particular form that the following brief survey of the literature of the Raj will focus.

Contrary to popular misconception, Kipling was not the first writer to deal with India and Indian life. Some of the earliest Indian novels published in England go back as far as the 1780s, and by the beginning of the 19th century, a steady stream of quaintly exotic novels was serving to assuage the British public's curiosity in its ever-growing Indian possessions. Many of these early novels deal with the 'nabobs' of John Company — merchant adventurers who returned from India fabulously wealthy, and flaunted their riches before an astonished London society. Clearly reflected in the novels of this period, also, is the evangelical undercurrent that was to change the course of British policy in India.

It was the enormous psychological impact of the Indian Mutiny, however, that forced the British public to reassess its somewhat patronizing and optimistic view of foreign cultures and race relations, and stimulated a renewed and perhaps more mature interest in India. The novels and short stories of Sir Henry Cunningham and Philip Robinson attained a measure of popularity in the 1870's, and 1888 saw the publication of Rudyard Kipling's Plain Tales from the Hills.

Born in Bombay, Kipling was sent to England at the age of six, there to endure a lonely and traumatic education before returning once more to India and obtaining employment as a journalist. His sketches of Anglo-Indian life first appeared in English-language newspapers such as the Civil and Military Gazette, and collections of his stories delighted patrons of Wheeler's Indian Railway Library, a series of cheap paperback books sold at most railway stations, and designed to help weary travellers overcome the tedium of long train journeys across the Indian sub-continent.

Although primarily written for domestic consumption, Kipling's stories began to attract attention in England, and in 1889 he made the difficult decision to leave India and try to establish himself in the literary circles of London. By the end of the century he had become one of Britain's greatest literary figures. His abhorrence of political involvement led him to refuse a knighthood and many other honours bestowed upon him, but he did agree to accept the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907. During his lifetime, Kipling's popular appeal, and his awesome status as the nation's de facto poet laureate, [6] made him the object of much scornful criticism, particularly from the rising generation of iconoclastic 'decadent' writers.

The First World War and the Russian Revolution gave birth to a generation of Western intellectuals that saw salvation in Stalin's Russia. Bewitched by the lure of communism, inspired by propaganda scenes of apple-cheeked peasant girls binding stooks of sun-ripened corn, and blissfully ignorant of the millions of Russians dying from man-made famines and the bullets of the NKVD, this generation of intellectuals reserved its bitterest vituperation for such 'imperialistic' writers as Kipling. Whilst world-wide sales of his novels, poems, and stories continued to grow, [7] Kipling's name became anathema in 'serious' literary circles, and even as late as 1942, George Orwell felt obliged to couch his essay on Kipling in the form of convoluted paradox and irony. [8] The 1970s saw a remarkable rehabilitation of Kipling's literary reputation, and the present flood of critical studies shows no sign of abatement. Although Kipling's Indian stories comprise but a small fraction of his total literary output, the quality, range, and authenticity of these stories have established him as the finest exponent of the genre. Nearly all subsequent writers of Indian novels have acknowledged their debt to him, and in this, more than any fickle academic reputation, lies ample testimony to his genius.

The same politicalization of literary criticism that chose to dismiss any work dealing with the Empire as 'imperialistic', and made any serious study of Kipling's work impossible for over fifty years, also ensured that a number of other writers of this period went almost totally unrecognized. The Indian novels of Flora Steel and Maud Diver have passed into literary oblivion, and another writer of the 1930s, Edward Thompson, is now chiefly remembered as a minor poet. Born into a family of Wesleyan missionaries, Thompson was himself ordained upon graduation from London University, and spent many years teaching in Bengal. He eventually resigned the ministry and returned to England, where he became a lecturer at Oxford, first teaching Bengali to ICS probationers, and then devoting himself to research in Indian history at Oriel College. His years in India left Thompson with a deep love of Bengali literature and culture, and he was a friend of such great Indian figures as Gandhi, Tagore, and Nehru. His Indian novels, set for the most part in the isolation of small up-country communities, deal sympathetically with the nationalist movement, and see a spiritual reconciliation of cultures and religions as a step towards inevitable devolution of British power. Although it might be an exaggeration to say, as some writers have, that the first volume of Thompson's Indian trilogy [9] ranks with Kipling's Kim as one of the finest novels ever written about India, nevertheless his books remain some of the best evocations of British India in the third and fourth decades of this century, and certainly deserve more recognition.

One extraordinary exception to the many Indian novels consigned to limbo by the intellectual tenor of the times is E. M. Forster's A Passage to India [10], which, to judge by the proclamations of many critics, is the only English novel ever written on the subject. Such evaluations would seem to be the product of the kind of literary philistinism that dismisses science-fiction as a literary genre, but condescends to acknowledge the third-rate SF novels of such second-rate 'serious' writers as Aldous Huxley. Whatever the purely literary merits of A Passage to India, it stands condemned by both Indian and British writers for its inaccurate portrayals of both communities. Forster spent a total of twelve months in India, and it is perhaps unfair to criticize the validity of the personal impressions he gained during this short time. The fact remains, however, that the critical acceptance of A Passage to India has served to draw the attention of educated readers away from other, more authentic novels.

The twenty years after the end of the Second World War were dominated by the novels of John Masters. When an aspiring writer called Molly (M. M.) Kaye tried to interest a publisher in her first novel on the Indian Mutiny, she was told that it had no hope of success, as 'Jack' Masters had already cornered the market for that kind of book. [11] Coming from a family that traced its Indian roots back for more than five generations, Masters followed his father into the Indian Army, in which he served until Independence in 1947.

Like so many other Anglo-Indians, he then chose to leave India, and settled down in the United States. In his novels, Masters has consciously tried to cover the whole historical span of British rule, from the Mutiny to Independence, and Bhowani Junction [12], set in the last years of the Raj, has the distinction of being one of the few Indian novels to have been made into a film.

Independence, when it came, caught many people unprepared for its suddenness. Only a few years earlier, it would have been unthinkable that the Crown would allow one of its most prized possessions to slip out of its hands. The unthinkable, however, became a reality, and the years after the war saw Britannia in an almost indecent rush to divest herself of each and every last vestige of colonial accoutrement. Harold Macmillan's 'Wind of Change' speech confirmed that this was no mere whim or aberration but official government policy, and although most former colonies gleefully accepted the offer of independence, a few recalcitrant outposts of the Crown — those with little or no prospect of financial or military self-sufficiency — found themselves being coerced into reluctant nationhood. Throughout the fifties and sixties, an almost interminable succession of independence celebrations made the ceremony of the lowering of the Union Jack a familiar sight on British television, and many relatively minor members of the Royal Family emerged from near anonymity to serve as representatives of the Crown on such august occasions.

By the 1970s, little was left of the greatest empire in history, and the British public, now fully absolved from any unpleasant imperialistic guilt feelings, could settle back and thoroughly indulge itself in unfettered nostalgia for a departed age. Whether this nostalgia was but a reflection of the same dissatisfaction with modern urban life that popularized pine furniture, brown bread, and fake Victorian packaging, or whether it sprang from a true fascination with a vivid and turbulent era in Britain's history, there is no way of telling. Suffice to say that there has been a very real change in the attitude of both scholars and the public towards the Empire in general, and India in particular.

One of the most striking indications of this renewed interest has been the extraordinary success of M. M. Kaye's The Far Pavilions [13]. Published in 1978, this enormous 950-page saga of 19th century India sailed effortlessly to the top of the British best-seller lists, where it remained for several months. Repeating the same unprecedented success in the United States, it has sold more than five million copies world-wide. Although much of the book would appear to be sheer swashbuckling fantasy, almost all of it is based on recorded historical events, many of them intimately connected with members of Molly Kaye's own illustrious family. The runaway success of The Far Pavilions gave new life to Shadow of the Moon [14], her first novel, published in a grossly truncated form in 1956. Reprinted in its original version in 1979, this novel of the Mutiny proceeded to repeat the success of The Far Pavilions. Like The Far Pavilions, virtually the whole of the narrative is based on real events, and was inspired by an unpublished letter written by one of the female survivors of the Mutiny [15] — once again proving that truth can be much stranger than fiction.

Another remarkable novel dealing with the Mutiny is J. G. Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur [16]. Unlike most Mutiny novels, it avoids the oft-recorded events of Delhi, Lucknow, and Cawnpore, and focuses on the defence of a small fictitious town by a band of ill-assorted Englishmen. Farrell died before he could complete his second Indian novel, but it is a measure of public interest in the subject that this fragment was published in its incomplete form. [17]

Whilst epic novels such as Valerie Fitzgerald's Zemindar [18] — again about the Mutiny — continue to satisfy the British public's appetite for massive romantic novels with exotic settings, the same cannot be said for Paul Scott's magnificent Raj Quartet [19]. The success of this enormously complex tetralogy attests to a much more mature interest in the turbulent years before Independence. At first glance, the chief protagonist of the Raj Quartet would seem to be the mirror image of the hero of The Far Pavilions, the former being an Indian raised and educated in British public schools, and subsequently totally unable to re-adapt to Indian society, the latter being a young Englishman raised by Indians, and finding his loyalties and affections tragically divided. The parallel between the two works does not, however, go beyond this superficial similarity. Whilst The Far Pavilions is a splendidly written adventure yarn which recaptures much of the atmosphere and excitement of India in the 19th century, the Raj Quartet is a complex psychological tapestry of inter-related subjective realities, accurately mirroring all the fears, uncertainties, and animosities of both Indian and English communities on the eve of Independence.

Both The Far Pavilions and the Raj Quartet have now been made into highly successful television films. The former was shown on British television as a six-hour drama over the Christmas period of 1983, whilst the latter was broadcast as a weekly series in the spring of 1984. [20] The viewing figures for both of these seem to suggest that even such saturation coverage has not managed to satiate the public's appetite for such fare.

Whatever their theme or setting, most novels about British India deal ultimately with the relationship between Englishmen and Indians, between ruler and ruled. With Independence, that relationship ceased to exist, and it might seem that any genre that takes that relationship as its primary subject can, at best, serve only as a retrospective mirror, and is doomed to ultimate sterility.

Whilst it is a palpable fact that the Raj is long gone, its legacy survives. It survives in the currency of English as one of the languages of educated Indians, and it survives in the large numbers of Indian immigrants that have made their homes in England, and have transformed such unlikely places as Southall, Leicester, and Loughborough into veritable Indian townships.

A new generation of writers such as Salman Rushdie and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has emerged to record, in English, the realities of contemporary Indian society, both at home and in self-imposed exile. Both these writers have managed to gain early literary recognition and encouragement, and there is every reason to believe that English novels about India and Indian life will be with us for a very long time to come.


1  James Morris, Pax Britannica (London: Penguin, 1979), p. 41.

2  B. K. Gupta, in his India in English Fiction 1800-1970 (Metuchen: Scarecrow Press, 1973), lists 2,272 titles. This number does not, of course, include the many volumes that have appeared since 1970.

3  For the sake of euphony, the two terms 'English' and 'British' have been used indiscriminately. This is not to ignore the contribution of generations of Scotsmen to the commercial life of both India and the Empire, nor to overlook the important role played by Irish soldiers in the Imperial Army.

4  Distinction was made between the Indian Army, consisting of Indian soldiers commanded by British officers, and the British Army, which consisted of wholly British regiments stationed in India.

5  Originally referring to British residents in India, this term was officially adopted in 1900 to describe persons of mixed descent, until then known as Eurasians. Used here and throughout this essay in its original meaning.

6  When Tennyson died in 1892, Kipling was regarded as the obvious successor to the post of Poet Laureate. Fears that he might refuse an offer of the post resulted in the appointment, in 1896, of the nonentity Alfred Austin.

7  Kipling has been especially popular in the USSR, where most of his Indian stories and verses have appeared in translation, including a Russian version of Indian Tales (Moscow: State Textbook Publishing House of the People's Commissariat of Education of the R.S.F.S.R., 1940). The exquisite irony of this seems to have escaped most literary historians.

8  George Orwell, 'Rudyard Kipling', Collected Essays (London: Mercury Books, 1961). At the time in which Orwell's first novel Burmese Days (1935) is set, Burma was technically a part of the Indian Empire, and this has led a number of scholars to include him in surveys of Indian literature.

9  Edward Thompson, An Indian Day (London: Macmillan, 1927); A Farewell to India (London: Macmillan, 1931); An End of the Hours (London: Macmillan, 1938).

10  E. M. Forster, A Passage to India (London: E. Arnold, 1924).

11  M. M. Kaye, BBC Radio 4 interview, December 1983.

12  John Masters, Bhowani Junction (London: Michael Joseph, 1954).

13  M. M. Kaye, The Far Pavilions (London: Allen Lane, 1978).

14  M. M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon (London: Allen Lane, 1979).

15  M. M. Kaye, BBC Radio 4 interview, December 1983.

16  J. G. Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1973).

17  Together with Farrell's Indian diary, and a number of personal memoirs, as: J. G. Farrell, The Hill Station (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1981).

18  Valerie Fitzgerald, Zemindar (London: Bodley Head, 1981).

19  Paul Scott, The Jewel in the Crown (London: Heinemann, 1966); The Day of the Scorpion (London: Heinemann, 1968); The Towers of Silence (London: Heinemann, 1971); A Division of the Spoils (London: Heinemann, 1975).

20  As The Jewel in the Crown, the title of the first volume in the tetralogy. This thirteen-part series was produced at considerable expense as a result of the favorable critical response to an earlier pilot film version of Scott's sequel to the Quartet, Staying On (London: Heinemann, 1977).

Reprinted from Otsuma Women's University Faculty of Literature Annual Report, Vol. XVII, 1985