The Indo-Anglians in Search of the World : #3

This is my final report on my summer research project, previously described here and here.

A striking feature of the literature of the ‘Indo-Anglian’ period is the proliferation of memoirs and autobiographical narratives that engage in what we would today call auto-ethnography. In libraries of the better sort, these memoirs can take up entire bookcases, checked out once every ten years or so by graduate students ploughing their way through yet another dissertation on representations of “home” or “Indian identity” in Anglophone writing . Thanks to a research grant from CASI, I had the chance to become one of these graduate students myself this summer. This blog post is about one of the better-known stories in this genre, Rohinton Mistry’s “Lend Me Your Light”, first published in the Toronto South Asian Review and later collected in Tales from Firozsha Baag (Penguin, 1987).

A typical ‘Indio-Anglian’ auto-ethnographic narrative tracks the ambiguous transnational journeys of a deracinated young man, whose Anglophone education (and/or years abroad) has left him introspective to the point of being narcissistic, burning with literary and sexual ambitions that he is incapable of realizing. The novels of the diplomat and Milton scholar Balachandra Rajan and the M.I.T.-trained corporate executive Arun Joshi exemplify this genre, whose politics range from politically incorrect paeans to the British Empire (such as Nirad C. Chaudhari’s The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian), to more ponderous ruminations on the incompatibility of European and Indian civilizations (such as Raja Rao’s The Serpent and the Rope). In the early post-Independence years, it was postwar England that was the default site for Anglophone Indian yearning; after the immigration reforms of the 1960s, north America became more prominent in the Indian imagination. While some of this exilic literature arose in response to racism and anticipated the postcolonial turn of the 1980s and ‘90s — I’m thinking , for instance, of Anita Desai’s Bye Bye Blackbird (1971) and Kamala Markandaya’s The Nowhere Man (1972) — this is not really a body of work known for its political radicalism or its attention to the metaphysics of race. No desi Frantz Fanon emerged from this churning, no poet who addressed his brown skin and declared “O my body, make of me a man who always questions”. The “double consciousness” of the Indo-Anglians, such as it was, was more likely to take the form of melancholia than rage.

Unlike many Indian languages, where post-Independence disillusionment often took the form of a return to the village— such as in Phanishwarnath Renu’s Maila Aanchal (Hindi, ‘The Soiled Border’, 1954), Srilal Shukla’s Raag Durbari (Hindi, ‘In a Courtly Mood’, 1968), or O.V. Vijayan’s Khassakinte Itahasam (Malayalam, ‘The Legends of Khasak’, 1969) — it was homelessness and exile that became dominant themes in English-language writing. A relatively late work in the genre, Rohinton Mistry’s “Lend Me Your Light” nonetheless contains many of the same melancholic, exilic motifs characteristic of the fictions of Balachandra Rajan and Arun Joshi: an adolescence spent in the shadow of an imagined West; a “failed” encounter with the village; and desultory international flights that bring no final answers or epiphanies, but instead render both the starting-point and destination into hazy, unreal places. Alongside other stories in Tales from Firozsha Baag, “Lend me Your Light” has been typically interpreted by critics as a work of immigrant art, reflecting a “double diasporic experience”: of Zoroastrians in India, and Indians in Canada. Yet, as my research on the literature of post-Nehruvian disillusionment suggests, a story like “Lend Me Your Light” can also be read in a multilingual and comparative framework: as a work of Indian modernism, belonging to its time and place in the same way as a Marathi poem by Namdeo Dhasal or a Bengali short-story by Mahasweta Devi.

“Lend Me Your Light” tracks the disintegrating friendship of three young men who try and escape the shabby hypocrisy of middle-class life in ‘80s Bombay— Jameshed (who emigrates to New York), the narrator (who emigrates to Toronto), and his brother Percy (who moves to a small village in Maharashtra, to take up the cause of destitute farmers against the local moneylenders). Even as they drift away from the Bombay of their childhood, the three men remain bound to each other, unable to come to terms with how differently each of their lives turned out. The idea of emigration is a cliché for Mistry’s characters, one their entire upbringing has prepared them for, everything else was expectation and waiting: “Absolutely no future in this stupid place… Bloody corruption everywhere And you can’t buy any of the things you want, don’t even get to see a decent English movie”. Mistry’s prose reflects this expectation as a form of gnostic spiritual anguish. The material world, with its squalor and indifference, becomes a frightening and alien place for English-speaking Indians, forcing them to retreat into clichés. More than two decades after Independence, the three protagonists of the story are brought up on a “version of reality” inherited from colonial times, that consigned ghatis (Anglophone slang for Marathi-speakers) to “the mute roles of coolies and menials, forever unredeemable”. The India that exists outside of their convent school barely registers in their minds, their childhood is mostly spent within gated compounds or indoors, fiddling with imported LPs and model airplanes.

What makes “Lend Me Your Light” one of the better allegories of the Indo-Anglian condition is the story’s refusal to yield any kind of redemptive meaning. Just as the narrator is about to leave Bombay, his vision is afflicted by conjunctivitis, and his last glances of the city are filtered through dark glasses — transforming familiar places into something dimmed and unreal. After two years claustrophobic years abroad, when he returns to India, the narrator is determined to break the spell, to see his country of birth with new eyes. But as his flight approaches Santa Cruz airport, Mistry’s prose falls back into the same weary clichés: the land is still “parched, brown, weary, and unhappy”, the airport still ugly and under-construction, and naked children still greet international travelers with requests for money. There is only one, brief moment of grace in “Lend me Your Light”, as the narrator watches kerosene lamps being lit by street side vendors hawking cheap goods by Bombay’s Flora Fountain, and feels a momentary sense of kinship with the ghati crowd. But this Tagore-ian moment of spiritual transcendence is fleeting (the title of the story refers to a poem from Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali), and the narrator returns to Toronto, a place just as desolate as the story’s version of Bombay, neither described nor understood nor properly inhabited. Mistry’s story begins with Tagore and concludes with Eliot, quoting lines from “The Fire Sermon”: “I, Tiresias, [though blind], throbbing between two lives…”. For the Indo-Anglian modernist, the whole world had a tendency to become a wasteland.

Unlike the Britain-bound postcolonial elites of an earlier generation, best represented in Qurratulain Hyder’s Aag Ka Dariya [‘The River of Fire’, 1959], Mistry’s characters do not feel any kind of guilt at opting out of the collective project of ‘nation-building’. By the ‘70s, that discourse had run dry, and been replaced by a sense of morbid anticipation. While the rupture from the past created by emigration is certainly at the heart of Tales from Firozsha Baag (as in Naipaul’s Miguel Street, an obvious model), there is no precise moment in which the story becomes a fiction about migration and the South Asian diaspora. Even those who stay back and commit themselves to local struggles, like Percy, are not immune to the “soul-sapping” desire to escape the demands of history by speaking of India as a foreign country. This Trishanku-like in-between-ness is a key characteristic of some of the best English writing about India from pre-liberalization times: before the growth of major South Asian diasporas in the UK, US, Australia, and Canada; before prosperity and the relaxation of foreign exchange regulations made Europe and north America the backdrop of every other Bollywood movie; before the boom in Anglophone schooling and higher education made English the chosen vehicle of upward mobility for the large and amorphous Indian middle-class. It is not only the emigrants who are waiting for “the light”, in Mistry’s story, but all Anglophone Indians, wherever they are.   

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About Vikrant Dadawala

I'm a doctoral candidate in English and Cinema Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. My dissertation project is a study of themes of disillusionment and heartbreak in modern Indian literature and cinema. Other broad areas of interest include science fiction, South African literature, the global Cold War, and middlebrow cinema.