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A dream within a dream
May 01, 2014

Is English your native language? Do you know any language other than English? If you do, do you pick up literary material in the other languages as well?

Sorry for bombarding you with so many questions. I was only trying to gauge the level of interest for native literature written in English, as compared to local language writing itself.

So you see there are two kinds of local literature available in many countries. One is the literature of the local culture, written in the local language. Such literature caters to the local milieu.

The other is the literature of the local culture but written in a foreign language, mostly English. This kind of literature caters to the ‘elite’ English speaking crowd of the land and in many cases, is consumed by expatriates of the local land in an English country.

What is special about this second kind of writing? What are the challenges involved in this strange, somewhat unnatural creative process? This issue will delve into some aspects of Indian Writing in English to understand this better.

Indian English Literature

 The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga Sake Dean Mahomet was the first writer to attempt this kind of writing in his book Travels of Dean Mahomet in 1793. Since then, many authors of high caliber have taken up similar projects. Rabindranath’s English translation of Gitanjali is perhaps the most illustrious example of IEL. Because of the popularity and acclaims this work received from the English speaking countries, culminating eventually in Rabindranath receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. Other writers of repute of the bygone era would be Raja Rao, Nirad C Chaudhuri, R.K.Narayan and Mulk Raj Anand.

Indian writers of English in the current literary landscape include Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Nayantara Sehgal, Anita Desai, Kiran Desai, Amitav Ghosh, V S Naipaul, Rohiton Mistri, Shashi Tharoor, Arvind Adega…..phew, and many others.

They write about poverty, caste system, corruption and our exotic Indian culture…in a language that tries hard to express local smells, sounds and flavors with a ‘stiff upper lip’. Does the language do justice to the story? This is a hot topic of debate spurred more recently by Rushdie’s comment "the ironic proposition that India's best writing since independence may have been done in the language of the departed imperialists is simply too much for some folks to bear" in The Vintage Book of Indian Writing. I stumbled upon an interesting blog that has a number of posts on the same topic:

Book Review Circle gossip

From this same blog, I picked up the concept of ‘dream within a dream’ to connote the sometimes spurious nature of IEL. The phrase is used to indicate the sheer unrealism of trying to portray Indian stories in English. The first layer of unrealism lies in the setting, characters and stories itself, as conceived by authors who don’t experience the rigors of the native soil but conceive of the same rigors from their ivory towers.

The second layer of the dream consists of attempting to stuff the mouths of these story characters with English dialogues and thoughts. After all, how can a rickshaw puller in India possibly think and talk in English, like these books will be forced to portray.

Book Review Circle suggested read:

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. To read a review of the novel click here

Test your Literary Quotient

See if you know answers to the following:
  1. Aravind Adiga won this prize for The White Tiger
  2. Salman Rushdie employs this literary technique in his novels, styled after Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  3. Name R K Narayan’s most famous piece of work


  1. Man Booker Prize
  2. Magic Realism
  3. Swami and his friends
Do write in to me at with your comments, updates and suggestions. I look forward to hearing from you.

Ok. I will leave you to munch on that.

Happy reading till we meet again.


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