Joyce reviews a book on literary criticism, Reflection of Social Ethos in the Selected Novels of Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai and Arvind Adiga by Dr. Archana Bhatarcharjee for Different Truths. The reviewer quotes the author, “Indian English literature is an absolute product of the Indian social ethos and sensibility.”
Number of Pages 186 Pages
Price Rs 800/-
Publication Year 2015
In March 2015, AatishTaseer published an article in the New York Times entitled How English Ruined Indian Literature. He describes how knowledge of written and spoken English is so essential to getting ahead in India that, as his friend puts it “English is not a language in India. It is a class.” Taseer adds that, “It has created a linguistic line as unbreachable as the colour line once was in the United States.” He decries how the lack of support for literacy and high quality writing in many of the local languages of India is a remnant of colonialism with a stifling effect on creativity and pride in cultural identity. He laments that the acclaimed Indian writers in English, such as Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh and Arundhati Roy are unable to “credit India alone for their success; they all came to India via the West, via its publishing deals and prizes.” This seemed true enough, on the surface at least. However, when Taseer mentioned, in reference to himself and other aspiring Indian writers, “We could write about our country, but we always had to keep an eye out for what worked in the West,” I began to suspect this picture of being somewhat unbalanced, compelling as it was.
Then, in early 2016, came the publication by Authorspress of Dr. Archana Bhattacharjee’s book, Reflection of Social Ethos in the Selected Novels of Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai and Arvind Adiga, all authors who write in English. In the second paragraph of her introduction, Bhattacharjee comes right out with it: “As the identity of literature depends essentially on society and nationality and not on language of any particular nation, it is unsound to argue that only regional or ‘Bhasha’ literatures are the national literatures of India, which reflect Indian ethos.” Here was the other side of the story, written by someone who sought to bridge the gap rather than widen it. Bhattacharjee maintains “Indian English literature is an absolute product of the Indian social ethos and sensibility.”
Now all I needed was to find out what she meant by ‘social ethos.’
I didn’t have far to look before I found a gem of a definition: “The ethos refers to the spirit which motivates the ideas and customs.” The author tells us that an ethos is social when it informs what people say and do both formally and informally. More importantly, she spells out how the contemporary social ethos is challenged by globalisation, fundamentalism, communalism, and growing social and economic disparities. She shares her vision of a new consciousness arising from this ethos, when “core values are taken to a new level seeking transformation of mindsets, attitudes and prescriptive behavior.”
At this point you may be asking, what role does fiction play in this process, if at all? Bhattacharjee answers with profound simplicity, saying that fiction “witnesses changes taking place in life and society and therefore these changes are reflected in the fictional world.”
The first such earthy, realistic, and pain-filled fictional world explored by Bhattacharjee is the one created by Arundhati Roy in The God of Small Things. Here we meet Ammu, “an entirely tragic figure tortured and abused by the police, family and politics.” I wish I could say I was shocked to read Bhattacharjee’s next words: “Ammus’s character presents the picture of the average women in the present day social set-up.” The author proceeds to show us in detail and with insightful compassion, how various characters in The God of Small Things represent participants in a basically unfair social contract that refuses to die–and how those who violate the rules by crossing caste lines or struggling against injustice are punished. As Bhattacharjee observes, “Through the God of Small Things,” Roy makes a scathing attack on the patriarchal notions of ‘touchable society,’ the high caste people and their hypocrisy, ostentation, and cruelty.” She ends by saying, “The novel is rooted in the socio-cultural ethos of Indian soil and hence it gives identity and authenticity to her writing.”
As I read this chapter of the book, I experienced a feeling of opening, a widening of vision required by the effort to truly understand the many dimensions of Arundhati Roy’s story. I will definitely revisit The God of Small Things again, with new understanding and humility.
In writing about Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss, Bhattacharjee describes how the novel ‘ricochets’ between an Indian hill station in the north-eastern Himalayas and the grim underbelly of New York. How a family is caught in the wake of a political ferment (a violent campaign for the creation of a separate Gorkhaland state in the Nepali-speaking areas of northern West Bengal) that shakes up their genteel lifestyle. The political and social backdrops used by Desai are deftly expanded on by Bhattarcharjee in a way that brings history into focus in the most personal of ways. Talking about how Desai brilliantly portrays the post-colonial transition, she says, “Characters feel inferior, bounded and defeated by their Indian heritage…. Despite political freedom, cultural slavery is directly manifested through these characters.” Time and again the author illuminates the social context of highly personal experiences portrayed by Desai, the class consciousness that fragments people’s lives at every moment, the “shadow lines” that run across the minds, manners, life and society.” By providing such a strong context for Desai’s work, Bhattacharjee challenges us to take in the full picture. And she wasn’t done yet.
Arvind Adiga stirred up some controversy when his satirical novel, The White Tiger, was published. Some reviewers criticised him for stereotyping people from Bihar, and failing to portray poor people in complex and nuanced terms. Bhattacharjee sees instead, Adiga’s accurate mirroring of society and she muses that “this may be a reason why the novel gets tremendous success in the literary field in the global context.” She accepts Balram Halwai as the anti-hero of a black comedy, that who shows us how India, despite claims of economic progress, has a huge underclass. It is to this underclass that Balram gives voice, with a biting, angrily humorous, and ultimately savage, tone. She profiles Balram is a subaltern who “dares to enter the restricted domain created by the oppressor, revolts and gets success and recognition at any cost…” Bhattacharjee sees him as giving “voice to his oppressed, abused and exploited brethren.” There is no sign that she condemns Adiga for using broad strokes and cynicalscenarios to make his point. And she celebrates the complexity and uniqueness of Balram’s character, pointing out that he is “neither a victor nor a sufferer but a combination of both – truly a new age protagonist.”
As every word in this book makes clear, Bhattacharjee feels as strongly about the need for equality and social justice as do the three authors whose works she has so thoroughly illuminated through her analysis. She also has a deep appreciation for the craft of writing. There is no one-size-fits-all template here. Just as she talks about the authentic connection to Indian soil that motivates each of these writers, her own deep involvement with bringing a new, more human ‘social ethos’ to light shines through. Her book is inspirational with its thesis that the intensity of our connection with and empathy for our fellow human beings can transcend language and provide a direct reflection of the heart.