Review Essay


Humanism in Indian English Fiction.


Edited by T. S. Anand, L. S. Bedi, Sushminderjit Kaur and Hargunjot Kaur Kapur.

Creative Books, New Delhi (2005). xii+246.


Edited by T. S. Anand in association with his colleagues L. S. Bedi, Sushminderjit Kaur and Hargunjot Kaur Kapur, Humanism in Indian English Fiction brings together in one volume the assorted papers presented at a seminar organised by G. G. N. Khalsa College, Ludhiana (Punjab) in March 2005. The editors’ promptness in giving to the seminar proceedings the shape of a book is indeed praiseworthy. And equally praiseworthy is the outcome: an elegant and substantial book of more than 246 pages.


A book that comes out of a seminar has a peculiar character. It is marked by diversity and unevenness, is multifocal, and is likely to dispose of somewhat tangentially its foundational assumptions. A planned book, with its specific, invited contributions, can better afford to be focussed and intensive. But then a seminar is an occasion for fruitful indiscipline, when different trajectories intersect, fly off tangent, or even ignore one another altogether. The criteria of uniformly good quality and progressive elaboration cannot be always applied, therefore, with a good conscience to a book born of a seminar.


Although humanism lost its innocence a long time ago, a certain naivety about its ‘natural and obvious’ connotations, complicated by anthropological hubris, lingers on. The tendency, consequently, is to compulsively and exclusively read humaneness, universal compassion and glory into humanism. Neither the violence of the human being nor the violence on (human) being gets registered in the process, something that humanism ever since its problematization has borne as a burden of guilt. Grappling with humanism’s bad conscience in the complex terrain of Indian literature (on which the Western Enlightenment humanism is only one of the several influences) is an obligation that remains unfulfilled. The present book, happily, gestures towards the fulfillment of that obligation. In fact, the book stitches together –not seamlessly– humanism as a set of noble values and humanism as a discourse. And the dichotomy suggests more than the positions taken; it is symptomatic of the intellectual state of the academy, with its unequal distribution and utilization of the highly fluid intellectual capital.


T. S. Anand’s Introduction and the papers by K. B. Razdan and Nibir K. Ghosh provide the necessary historical context. In his short and crisp paper, Razdan brings out the predicament of the humanist writer in a mass society even as he takes into account both New Humanism and antihumanism. He is, however, at his perceptive best in his unconventional reading of Tagore’s poem as an ironic prayer. Both Anand and Ghosh trace the course of humanism –the former briefly, the latter elaborately– but somehow without interrogating its Eurocentricity and thus without seeking its other than European Enlightenment precedents. Can Indian literature, or for that matter Indian English literature, be fairly judged without recovering the histories of humanism which have been subalternised by the onslaught of Western cultural imperialism?


Swaraj Raj comes closest to the territory in which this question can be raised when he considers the problematic melding, in Raja Rao’s Kanthapura, of the novel as a specifically Western bourgeois individualist narrative form and Advaita as a specifically non-dualist Indian philosophy. The result, as he points out, is that the accepted parameters of humanism are strained. And hence the need, according to him, to rethink humanism.


When the parameters of humanism are coming under increasing strain in an assertively multicultural world, its supposedly self-evident universalist inclusiveness should be quite an enigma. The many papers on feminism, for instance, testify to this inclusiveness. The only problem, though, is that they treat of humanism as a pure ideal, uncontaminated by practice. They do not acknowledge the complicity, bordering sometimes on identity, between patriarchy and humanism. Literature is a distinctly human artifact: this is as true as any cliché can be. But does this imply that whenever you talk about human relationships in a literary work, it naturally means you are talking about humanism? The distinction or the convergence, whichever the case may be, needs to be rigorously worked out. Short of that, the papers of Somdatta Mandal, Shalini Gupta and Anupama Kaushal offer interesting readings. Mandal’s range is extraordinarily wide and yet her focus is precise and her lucidity astonishing. She disposes of the stereotype of the diasporic writer and breaks the obsolete binaries of east and west that continue to obscure the vision of her many colleagues in the academy. One such binarism is that of tradition and modernity, on which Shalini Gupta’s paper is predicated and which is implicit in the term ‘New Woman’ used by both Anupama Kaushal and Subhash Chandra. In Chandra’s paper, however, the gender binarism is deconstructed through exposure to Judith Butler’s feminist use of performativity, which he expounds with precision and applies in his highly persuasive reading of Kamala Markandaya’s Nector in a Sieve.


Wide sympathies pulsate almost visibly in Seema Malik’s examination of the critical treatment of ageism in the short stories of Shauna Singh Baldwin and Shashi Deshpande.  Ageism is, paradoxically, a dehumanizing humanist ideology insofar as it rests on the unacknowledged essentialisation of the human as young, powerful, attractive and rational, a move that quietly drives the old people to the outer margins of the properly human. Rabinder Powar’s paper also engages with the wider and really crucial issues of the ecologically predatory ideology of progress and its ruin of rural community systems on the one hand and the nurturing capabilities of intergenerational bonding and trans-generational familial memory on the other. Her double vision, thus, enables her to judge humanism dialectically, as potentially both evil and ennobling.


Jaspreet Mander, in her reading of Arundhati Roy’s novel, chooses to identify humanism, in the given Indian situation, with the oppressed and marginalized humanity. Before that, however, she puts her ear to the conscience of humanism in which are embedded not only many –most of them lost– promises of glory but also the archives of numerous inhumanities.


The very ordinary humanity, in the persons of Ram Chand and Kamla in Rupa Bajwa’s The Sari Shop, is the subject of Rupinder’s Kaur’s paper. In juxtaposing Bajwa’s characters with those of Dickens, she attempts what is unfashionable and succeeds in getting the most vital but little owned link acknowledged: the link of the Indian English novel with the classics of English fiction.


Anil Raina’s elegantly written paper on Attia Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column offers a detailed and judicious analysis of the text and exemplifies the comprehensive sweep of a humanist stance that rightly –albeit without self-critique– embraces feminism, postcolonialism and Marxism.


Avtar Singh’s paper on Arun Joshi’s The Last Labyrinth and Ashoo Toor-Gill’s on Bhabhani Bhattacharya’s So Many Hungers! and Kamala Markandaya’s A Handful of Rice seem to be similar in that both examine characters and their situations and bring out the disastrous consequences of incompatibility between the two. The illusory similarity is, however, undercut by a deep dissimilarity based on the difference of class, as a result of which an inversion takes place: the narratives of Bhattacharya and Markandaya become the narratives of situations and their characters, and hence of history’s frustration of humanism.


Manjit Inder Singh’s “The Human Worlds of Naipaul and Mistry”, as the title indicates, is an appropriately post-humanistic critical-philosophical reflection. Neither the ideology of humanism nor the idea of a cultural, sub-continental or continental world can adequately frame the imaginative universes that Naipaul and Mistry create. But there is an incommensurabilty between the two, an incommensurability of scale and intensity that emerges almost transparently in Singh’s treatment of their respective works. The fruit is the unstated irony which lies barely veiled under the adequate treatment that Mistry’s work invites but Naipaul’s eludes.


The fact that Manjit Inder Singh’s paper appears at the end of the volume has its own serendipitous symbolism: it could be read, even if for no reason, as pointing to the urgent human need to outgrow humanism. To fulfill, albeit somewhat late, Heidegger’s wish.



Rajesh Kumar Sharma

Department of English

Punjabi University, Patiala

February 2, 2006

©2006 Rajesh Kumar Sharma