Rajmohan's Wife, published in 1864 by Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay (1838–94), is generally regarded as the first Indian novel in English, significant not only because its author was the greatest Bengali novelist of the nineteenth century but also because it speaks to an emergent genre in the literature of colonial modernity. Unlike earlier short fiction in English, such as the futuristic novellas A Journal of 48 Hours of the Year 1945 (1835) by Kylas Chunder Dutt and The Republic of Orissa: A Page from the Annals of the Twentieth Century (1845) by Shoshee Chunder Dutt, Rajmohan's Wife has affinities with the domestic and social novel in the vernacular, inaugurated by Peary Chand Mitra's Alaler Gharer Dulal (The Spoilt Son of a Rich Family [1855–57, Bengali]), and anticipates some of the major developments of the novel as a genre.
Rajmohan's Wife stands at other intersections too: between “original” composition and translation, between realism and romance, between linguistic choices in periodical publication, and between modernity and tradition. Though it may strike us today as a novel without a posterity, it serves as witness to these relations at a critical moment of genre formation and of the construction of the colonial subject, and it offers lessons to later novelists, including Bankim himself. Sadly, the neglect of this work by his critics and biographers is a mark of the discomfort that overcomes literary historians when classifying the relatively minor English-language productions of major Indian writers such as Bankim, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, and Rabindranath Tagore.
The Colonial Public Sphere and the Politics of Print
The extent to which writing in the modern Indian languages was being transformed by contact with the West was a source of deep cultural anxieties as well as new modes of literary self-representation in the nineteenth century. New vernacular literatures attempted to acclimatize Enlightenment ideas within native literary idioms, while Western genres had to accommodate the desires, aspirations, and experiences of the native bourgeoisie. Bankim's own writings, decisively shaped by progressive Western thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Auguste Comte, reflect the critical tensions that developed after the Revolt of 1857 between Western liberal thought, repressive government, religious and social reform, and traditionalist reaction and introspection.