Friday, Oct 07, 2022
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Clerical Disorder

THE rise of Indo-Anglian fiction— fiction produced by Indian writers of English (hereafter IWE)—to global eminence is one of the remarkable phenomena of our breathless times. Ever since Midnight's Children, the air has been thick with the hatchings and squabbles of emergent IWE. And while the strictly literary harvest might look thin, there has been enough extra-literary stuff to keep gossip columns happy, interspersing litfolk amid models and party-hoppers.

Tabish Khair's study of these IWE—Babu Fictions: Alienation in Contemporary Indian English Novels—is worlds away from the glossy Sunday supplements. He subjects writers and their works to a barrage of intellectual heavy artillery. Thus, we have Marx and Hegel on "alienation", colonialist discourse and post-colonialist post-discourse, caste formation in ancient India... All in support of a thesis both simple, and plausible. In lay, non-Khair terms: while Indian society is divided into Babus and Coolies, "Indian English fiction is Babu fiction" that purports, in various unsatisfactory and devious ways, to represent the experiential world of the Coolies.

Not so long ago the very legitimacy of IWE, complicit with the language of our former thraldom, was under attack. Times have changed, and no one today questions the IWE's right to a place in the sun; after all, English too is an Indian language. But now this Indo-English, with its Western friends, is on its way to becoming for all practical international purposes, the only and sufficient Indian language.

Yet the fact is, English is an Indian language in a very special sense: it is often the only language of a certain kind of Indian; it is also integral to a vicious, unjust social configuration. Khair writes about the intrinsic, strictly technical, problems of representation that confront the poor IWE, ever in danger of sounding parodic or patronising about non-Babu Indians.

Khair also seems aware of the larger processes whereby these writers are taken to represent 'India'; not a special, specially privileged part of India, but India itself, the whole catastrophe. A kind of "subaltern camouflage"—"the rhetoric of exile and the myth of hybridity"—gets them world attention in the current intellectual climate of globalising multiculturalism. But while Khair is evidently aware and critical of this, the present study is only a prelude to that sometime larger work.

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