George Orwell on the Indian English Novel

Orwell and Anand

George Woodcock, Anand, Orwell, William Empson, Herbert Read, and Edmund Blunden recording for the BBC Eastern Service. (Photograph: BBC)

The hanging of Yakub Memon made me re-read George Orwell’s ‘A Hanging’. I had followed the heated debates on TV, newspapers and social media about the rightness or wrongness of capital punishment. In his essay, Orwell, who was with the Imperial Police Service from 1922 to 1927, describes the hanging of an Indian prisoner in colonial Burma. As he escorts the prisoner to the gallows, they encounter a puddle:

It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle I saw the mystery, the unsupportable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide…He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone – one mind less, one world less.

I know of no better argument against capital punishment.

After reading ‘A Hanging’, I re-read ‘Boys’ Weeklies’ and ‘Shooting an Elephant’, essays I have long admired. Then, quite accidentally, I came across an essay I had not read or even heard of before: Orwell’s ‘Review of The Sword and the Sickle by Mulk Raj Anand’.

In 1912 Yeats read Rabindranath Tagore’s self-translated poems, the manuscript of which he had received from the painter William Rothenstein. The story of how Yeats was deeply stirred by the poems, his subsequent involvement in the preparation of the English Gitanjali (1912), and the award, in 1913, of the Nobel Prize to Tagore is familiar and heartwarming. But it has a not so pleasant ending.  In 1935 Yeats wrote a letter to Rothenstein in which he said: ‘Damn Tagore… Tagore does not know English, no Indian knows English. Nobody can write with music and style in a language not learned in childhood and ever since the language of his thought.’ Unlike Yeats’s comments, which sound absurd now, Orwell’s review, published in Horizon in 1942, has perceptive remarks on Indian writing in English.

The Sword and the Sickle (1942) is the last novel of a trilogy by Anand. (Elsewhere in this blog I have a post on the second novel, Across the Black Waters.) The novel is about a soldier, Lal Singh or Lalu, who returns home after fighting in Flanders and being taken prisoner by the Germans. Orwell remarks on Anand’s lack of bitterness or obsession with English characters. (In the novels written by Anand, Narayan and Raja Rao in the years before Independence, English characters hardly appear or matter. The days of the Raj were clearly numbered. It is Indians and the future India that concern the three novelists.) In a novel on the same theme by a British intellectual, Orwell writes, there would have been an ‘endless masochistic denunciation of his own race, and a series of traditional caricatures of Anglo-Indian society, with its unbearable club life, its chota pegs, etc., etc.’ Was Orwell  thinking of his anti-colonial novel Burmese Days? Or, was he thinking of Forster’s A Passage to India and its disapproval of Anglo-Indian life? Burmese Days, incidentally, is arguably a better novel than A Passage to India.

He gets down to some practical criticism when he quotes the following passage from the novel under review:

Conscious of his responsibility for the misadventures into which he had led them, Lalu bent down and strained to lever the dead bodies with trembling hands. A sharp odour of decomposing flesh shot up to his nostrils from Chandra’s body, while his hands were smeared with blood from Nandu’s neck. He sat up imagining the smell to be a whiff of the foul virulence of bacterial decay, ensuing from the vegetation of the forest through which they had come. But, as he bent down again, there was no disguising the stink of the corpse. And, in a flash, he realized that though Nandu’s blood was hot now, it would be cold and the body would stink if it was carried all the way to Allahabad.

This, writes Orwell, is the work of a writer at home in the English language but the prose has a ‘vaguely UnEnglish flavour’ – ‘shot up to the nostrils’ is not quite idiomatic. Orwell does not disapprove of this. (He thinks Anand and Ahmed Ali are better novelists than most of their English contemporaries.) Indeed, he feels that there has evolved an Indian-English as distinct as Irish-English. Kamala Das was to later write:

…I am Indian, very brown, born in

Malabar, I speak three languages, write in

Two, dream in one. Don’t write in English, they said,

English is not your mother-tongue.

                        The language I speak

Becomes mine, its distortions, it queernesses

All mine, mine alone. It is half English, half

Indian, funny perhaps, but it is honest,

It is as human as I am human, don’t

You see?

Orwell, I believe, would have had been appreciative of these lines.

Orwell was writing when the Second World War was on. According to him, most Indian nationalists had become pro-Japanese. But this he saw as an emotional reaction, born out of opposition to British imperialism. ‘As a general rule, Indians are reliably anti-Fascist in proportion as they are Westernized.’  His solution to the problem of nationalism was international Socialism, the ideas of which would be carried to Indians through English: ‘Mr. Anand does not like us very much, and some of his colleagues hate us very bitterly; but as long as they voice their hatred in English they are in a species of alliance with us, and an ultimate settlement with the Indians whom we have wronged but also helped to waken remains possible.’ English was ‘a weapon of war’, to be used to co-opt Indians. Today he might have used the term ‘soft power’.

Orwell was wrong about the future of the Indian English novel. He noted that Japanese administrators in the Philippines, Chinese delegates in India, and Indian nationalists in Nazi Berlin, were all forced to use English for communication. But he believed once the economic motivation to learn English ended with the Raj, English would have an uncertain future in India and globally, thereby rendering the Indian English novel a cultural curiosity. The Raj did disappear but what the prescient author of Nineteen Eighty-Four did not foresee was how the coming of the internet, modern communications and a global economy would make the English language a far more powerful international lingua franca than it ever was in the heydays of the British Empire. Also that, with the burgeoning of the Indian economy and an urban middle class, it would be possible to have homegrown Indian English writers who would no longer have to depend on well-wishers like Graham Greene (who championed Narayan) or Forster (who supported Ahmed Ali and Anand) or on an English publishing industry to bring out their novels.  Academics who scorn Chetan Bhagat and Amish Tripathi forget that these popular authors write for Indians rather than for foreign readers (neither Chetan Bhagat nor Amish Tripathi is  known to readers abroad) and that their success has made it possible for more ‘literary’ writers to now write and be sustained by an Indian reading public. The recent high profile launch of Tripathi’s Scion of Ikshvaku, which included an expensive  trailer, is a clear sign of how the  Indian English novel market has ‘matured’.

By the way, Orwell and Anand were friends. When he was a Talks Assistant with the BBC in 1941, Orwell commissioned Anand to deliver a talk on the Spanish Civil War. The talk was prevented from being broadcast by the censors. Orwell however supported Anand and demanded that payment be made for the cancelled broadcast.