Literary histories can seem self-evident, tracing a linear development from “the beginning” straight through to the present day. It is thus that one might imagine a history of the Indian novel in English, which by most accounts – indeed, comparatively within the larger span of Indian literature – is a brief one. This history would begin with the nineteenth-century indigenous elite's first dabblings in the writing of English, influenced by colonial education and the allure of modernity and driven by reformist impulses. It might then take us to the movement known as “progressive writing” in the early twentieth century, when the novel was put to the service of a range of nationalist visions, and then to the early postcolonial decades, a period when English novels and their bhasha (vernacular-language) counterparts went in a number of directions. It would then linger a bit at 1981, when, it is said, the Indian English novel finally found form with the publication of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. Such a history would trace Rushdie's impact on the genre during the 1980s and 1990s and contrast the more commercial forms of contemporary Indian English writing since 2000 to the literary heavyweights of the preceding generation.
The current volume seeks to complicate, enrich, and at times challenge this conventional account. The straightforward historical trajectory, based in three formative periods that cover around a century, mark the Indian English novel at three definitive moments: its emergence, its “realist” phase, and its “modernist” one. Each period can be understood as a response to – even critique of – the former; at the same time, because of the global status and marketability of the third phase, its significance might be taken to have vastly surpassed those of the other two. However, this narrative has significant limitations. First, A History of the Indian Novel in English suggests that what happens to the novel between and within these supposedly distinct eras is as important as the eras themselves. Second, it argues that a solely historical approach has the potential to reduce authors to their explicit political positions or to the ethos of their age, thus precluding attention to literary form – to questions of genre, narrative, and literary aesthetics – and to the multiple ways in which literature means.