[(essay date 1998) In the following essay, Taneja surveys the work of several contemporary Indian writers, theorizing that modern Indian fiction is characterized by themes and imagery that tend to break away from traditional, post-colonial fiction.]
A fully comprehensive assessment of as large, varied and challenging a body of writing as Indian English fiction of the nineteen-eighties is a gigantic task and outside the scope of the present essay. Yet one can venture a few generalizations to illuminate its larger thematic and artistic concerns. Also, some of the more important novels can be subjected to a closer scrutiny to determine the extent to which certain milestones individually contribute to and modify the pattern that becomes discernible at the end of a decade of major achievements.
There is freshness and vitality in the novels of Allan Sealy, Shashi Tharoor and Anita Desai that renders their books a joy to read. Upamanyu Chatterjee, Amitav Ghosh and Rohinton Mistry explore the hitherto untouched layers of life and experience which would not have occurred to the novelists of the thirties as being capable of lending themselves to creative transmutation. They turned to life and experience as they knew them first hand. The need to romanticize the poor vanished in face of the onslaught of the genuinely felt and experienced pain of the living. They contended that there were agonies more intense than those of being economically deprived. The urge to examine one's roots (Sealy), critically scrutinize dogmas, political or otherwise, one had inherited (Rushdie), the stress and strain of living in an urban setting (Sahgal) or a confrontation with one's gender status (Anita Desai) are issues, they felt, of some significance for a creative writer.
The new English fiction exhibits confidence in tackling new themes and experiments with new techniques and approaches to handle those themes. The novelists come to their task without any preconceived notions of what constitutes literary content.1 This encourages them to focus on a vast and comprehensive canvas and to invest their themes with epic dimensions.
Shashi Tharoor's first fictional attempt, The Great Indian Novel,2 focuses, much like Midnight's Children, on modern Indian history. He uses the plot and characters from the Mahabharata to reorganize and reinterpret the political history of modern India. Set in the princely state of Hastinapur, soon to be annexed to the Raj, the narrative moves swiftly through historic events such as the Bibigarh Gardens massacres or the Great Mango March which led to the partition and Independence. Tharoor borrows the epic masks with remarkable inventiveness. He handles political allegory with considerable finesse and blends contemporary history with the epic. The result is a profound reinterpretation not only of recent Indian history, but also of the great epic and its primary preoccupation with eternal values. The irreverent tone and a critical-satirical attitude balanced with a sense of comedy are the weapons employed. This results in recent Indian history being viewed in terms of Derridian moral nihilism. Tharoor's dual interpretation denies us the comfort...