Post-colonialism in Indian literature

Prakash C. Balikai

Decolonization, which sets out to change the order of the world, is clearly an agenda for total disorder. But it cannot be accomplished by the wave of a magic wand, a natural cataclysm, or a gentleman’s agreement. Decolonization, we know, is an historical process: In other words, it can only be understood, it can only find its significance and become self- coherent insofar as we can discern the history-making movement which gives it form and substance.

Decolonization is the encounter between two congenitally antagonistic forces that in fact owe their singularity to the kind of reification secreted and nurtured by the colonial situation, Their first confrontation was colored by violence and their cohabitation-or rather the exploitation of the colonized by the colonizer-continued at the point of the bayonet and under cannon fire. The colonist and the colonized are old acquaintances. And consequently, the colonist is right when he says he “knows” them. It is the colonist who fabricated and continues to fabricate the colonized subject. The colonist derives his validity, i.e., his wealth, from the colonial system.
– The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon

Fanon is the pioneer of postcolonial studies in the world. He is the first thinker to begin to realize the dire consequences of colonialism and again he is the first writer to register his strong opposition to various forms of colonialism. To overcome the trauma of colonialism and to challenge it, he thought, the process of decolonialization had to be initiated.

If the literature written during the hay day of imperialism to support the empire is called colonial literature, then, literature written after the empire ceased to exist to challenge the dominance of the empire on the so called colonized nations is called postcolonial literature. Postcolonialism is an umbrella term which is inclusive of all discourses that challenge the dominance of all kinds of hegemony in all walks of human life.  “Postcolonial scholars have pointed out that when two cultures sharing unequal power confront each other, the weaker culture seeks different alternatives to meet the situation. If imitation and internalization of the values of the dominant culture is one of the responses, to struggle to retain its identity by turning to its roots is another”. For instance, the seeds of British imperialism can be seen in Shakespeare and Marlowe who happen to be the two most significant British renaissance writers. It is Queen Elizabeth who gave the royal consent to the British Navy to sail across the European oceans and reach the far off places for the purpose of trade and commerce which eventually led to the establishment of the British colonies creating a new chapter in the history of British Raj. Prospero in Shakespeare’s Tempest, for his own political reasons, comes to an island for shelter for him as well as for his only daughter. He , in the course of time, acquires control over the original inhabitants of the island, considers them as savages, uncivilized brutes who need to be taught lessons in life and treats them as inferior forgetting the fact that he himself is an outsider and has come here to get shelter. He hates the culture, language and manners of the inhabitants living on the island and thinks that he has come here to redeem them from what he considers to be an uncivilized way of life. We hardly see any difference between what Prospero did on the island and what the British did when they annexed a large part of India. Similarly, we find no big difference between what the former British Imperialism did in their colonies and what the American neo-imperialism is doing now in some parts of the globe today.

One of the most exciting features of English literature today is the explosion of postcolonial literatures– literatures written in English in former colonised societies. This has given rise to a range of theoretical ideas, concepts, problems and debates, and these have been addressed in a range of articles, essays, talks and books. Here an attempt is made on to look at the postcolonial studies in Indian literature. It was a period which witnessed many changes in Indian society. The impact of Western education and industrial developments were led to radical changes in society. The writers like Rabindranath Tagore, Bankimchand Chatterjee, Sarat Chandra, Premchand, O. Chandumenon, Gulwadi Venkata Rao and many others from different parts of India wrote about the colonised India. They have addressed various developments and reforms in their works. People of that period including political leaders, nationalists, writers and the masses started to think in their own ways. However, colonialism became the centre of discussion for the people of all sections. In the early 19th century most of the writers focused more on social issues of the society. The social reformists played a significant role in changing the society. The social reformists like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Dayanada Sarswati, K.C. Sen, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Annie Besant, Surendranth Banerjee and Jyotiba Phule have tried to give a new life to the decadent contemporary society and thought about the social problems of the society through their writings. The intellectuals of this period started spreading the message of progressive and rational ideas.

Indian society in the colonial period was very rigid and was beset with social evils like the Sati, widow-remarriage, the caste system and the social, religious as well as all kinds of hegemony. The primary aim of the writers of this period in most of the Indian vernaculars was to alert people of the consequences of these evils and also to bring awareness among them. For instance, in Malalyam, O. Chandumenon in his work Indhulekha (1889) takes “issue with the colonial characterization of Nair society and especially of Nair women.”2 “The modern education Indhulekha received gives her a necessary strength to shape up her own life. She is able to use the new education to help consolidate the strength of her own community in relation to the Nambuthiris.”3  In Kannada Gulvadi Venkatrao in his novel Indirabai (1899) presents the question of widowhood and supports widow remarriage in the transition period.  M.Vedanayakam Pillai in his collection of poems Penputtimalai (The Garland of Female Wisdom) emphasises the need for women education. Ishwar Gupta in Bengali and Dalapatram in Gujarati wrote poems about widow remarriage, women education and patriotism.4 The sati system, child marriage, marginalisation of women, widow-remarriage were in vogue during the period. The intellectual-reformists tried to uproot such evil practices from society and to translate their dreams into reality, they used theory writing as a tool to bring these issues to the notice of the people of their times.

In postcolonial writing a greater emphasis was put on the process of colonialization and attempt was made to record a strong resistance to the masters of the colonized societies besides insisting on contemporary realities of life. It deals with the literature written in colonized countries about the sufferings of the masses and also about the resistance of the people who were at the receiving end. Postcolonial writings can be considered as the historical marker of the period because it deals the literature which comes after decolonization.  Postcolonial writers engaged themselves in opening up the possibilities of a new language and a new way of looking towards the world. Their writings can be taken as a medium of resistance to the former colonizer. Their themes focus on the issues like identity, national and cultural heritage, hybridity, partition, contemporary reality, human relationships and emotions etc.

The rise of Indian English writing in postcolonial era was a significant development in Indian English literature. In the Indian context, postcolonial writing with its new themes and techniques makes its presence felt in the English-speaking world. Subaltern study is also a major sphere of current postcolonial practice. Gayatri Chakraborhy Spivak, Kancha Iliah, Ranjit Guha and others have focused on the subaltern issues in their works.  The literary works of the colonial nationalist period revolved around themes like marginalization, widowhood and widow remarriage. It was Bankim Chandra Chattopadyaya, who for the first time, sought to bring the national movement and patriotism in his novel Anandmath (1882). Later, it was followed by Ishwar Chandra Vidya Sagar, Sri Aurbindo, Rabindranath Tagore and others. Tagore’s Gora (1910) is also the product of the colonial period, which ultimately questions nationalism and the reader at the end of the novel wonders whether nationalism is an illusion or a reality.

The entire history of Indian English novel can broadly be divided into two periods—pre-independence novel and post-independence novel. The pre-independence period witnessed a slow growth of Indian English novel. It begins with the publication of Bankimchand Chatterjee’s Raj Mohan’s Wife in 1864. Most of the novelists of this period like Bankim Chandra Chattopadyaya, Rabindranath Tagore, and Raja Rao wrote mainly under the influence of Gandhism and nationalism. They exposed social evils, customs and traditions, rites and rituals, poverty and illiteracy, bonds and bondages in their novels on the one hand and on the other, they made their writings a powerful medium to highlight the east-west encounter and thereby to spread the nationalistic ideas of the great leaders like Mahatma Gandhi among the people. Mulk Raj Anand, R.K. Narayan and Raja Rao presented the radical social and national issues in their novels. The novels produced in the pre-independence period depicted the changing socio-political scene.

But a paradigm shift took place in the post-independence novels both in terms of content and style and novelists like Mulk Raj Anand wrote novels extensively dealing with social evils such as exploitation of the untouchable, the landless peasants, tea garden workers and the problems of industrial labour. The novels like Untouchable (1935), Coolie (1936) Two Leaves and A Bud (1937) and The Village (1939) are milestones in Anand’s journey of social reform. These novels concentrated on social reforms so much. The trend of presenting the social issues for the purpose of social reform got strengthened with the publication of G.V. Desai’s All About Hatter and Bhavani Bhattacharya’s So Many Hungers. While G.V Desai’s All About Hatter concentrates on the frontiers of social realism and stresses the need for social reform, Bhattacharya’s So Many Hungers studies the socio-economic effects of Bengal famine of early forties. Many women novelists in postcolonial period like Anita Desai, Arundhati Roy, Jhumpa Lahiri, Shobha De, Kamala Markandaya, Nayantara Sahgal, and Kiran Desai carved a niche for themselves in Indian English fiction.


Vijaya G. and Vikram V. (2009). Chakori: The Indigenous in the Postcolonial World. Sahitya Academy. Indian Literature,                                                                                          Vol. 53, No.6. pp. 197-201.

O. C. (2005). Indulekha.  Oxford Indian Paperbacks. p. Xvii

Das, S.K. (2005). A History of Indian Literature: 1800-1910. Western Impact: Indian Responses, New Delhi: Sahitya Akademy.         







Prakash C.Balikai

(Research Scholar)
Department Of English
Central University of Karnataka
Gulbarga, India.

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