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The Two Entangled Modes of Indian Anglophone Urban Writing

In a famous 1999 essay, the writer and critic Amit Chaudhuri twists Henry James’s notorious reference to nineteenth-century novels as ‘loose-baggy monsters’, to write: ‘since India is a huge baggy monster, the Indian novels that accommodate it have to be baggy monsters as well’.89 He sets out to debunk this enduring topos of literary criticism, which mimetically connects a supposedly chaotic country with formal aspects of its literature, and dismisses delicacy, nuance and irony as foreign. This assumption, he argues, is based on several metonymic fallacies, among which the notion that the Indian novel in English has to represent India as a whole, and that Indian writing at large is encapsulated by Rushdie’s capacious epic novels, perpetuating the myth of an overabundant subcontinent.90 In Chaudhuri’s view, this dominant aesthetics of plenty and excess also participates in the triumphant narrative of the literary emergence of India, which is co-opted in the discourse of India’s ‘arrival’ and in celebrations of globalization.91 Contrary to this huge baggy monstrosity, which would be complicit with both orientalism and global capitalism, he identifies an alternative ‘miniaturist’ lineage, consisting in writings in English but also in regional Indian languages (Bengali, Kannada), foregrounding ellipsis and irony, focused on local rather than national realities, which he endows with critical force.
The political implications of monumental and miniature literary forms are also addressed by Arundhati Roy and Salman Rushdie, who reclaim capaciousness and excess as having critical value. Rushdie locates his own writing in the line of Tristram Shandy or Tom Jones, and sees the Jamesian category of the monstrous as a positive quality, stating that his novels ‘have been attempts to be everything books’, literary equivalents to the ‘multitude’.

From Tumultuous to Familiar Literary Geographies: Approach and Outline

This work stands at the crossroads between literary and urban studies, a position which, I hope, helps to open up literary criticism, holding that the city is neither an abstract concept nor only a myth but has a palpable, contradictory, social and material reality that literature approaches in various manners. This historical-materialist approach prompts me to analyse aspects of urban imagination which actually exceed the limits of classic literary studies, such as the global city, the ordinary city, or the construction of locality. David Harvey’s ‘historical-geographical materialist’ understanding of urban space (in particular his concept of ‘urban entrepreneurialism’) also proves critical to my understanding of Indian urban writing. Secondly, deploying concepts from urban studies for literary analysis also brings to light the way the specific aesthetic work of literature refracts the contradictory process of urban modernisation at work in contemporary cities, while often complicating or challenging the concepts and observations from the social sciences. The influence of the social sciences on my research is also tangible in my consideration of the writers’ discourses on their own works and on their relationship to the city at large, gathered through the interviews I conducted over the course of three research stays in Delhi, Mumbai and As stated earlier, contrary to Chaudhuri’s dichotomy between two lineages of Indian writing, what I want to highlight throughout this work is that Indian urban writing is defined by the fluctuation between the two modalities rather than by their strict opposition. The paradigmatic case of interplay between two modes is Arundhati Roy’s writing, which occupies a central place in this dissertation. Defined by the writer as ‘both epic and intimate’, her novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness intensifies the shock of urban transformations and this epic energy overlaps with Roy’s acclaimed ability to probe into ‘small things’, her enlarging of the microscopic movements of the body, her exploration of the forgotten corners of the megacity, and her disclosing the micro-politics of surviving and making do in the cruel metropolis. This perpetual fluctuation between heightening and subduing, macroscopic and microscopic scales, eruption and long-term crisis, which justifies the presence of Roy across the chapters, substantiates my assumption that Indian urban writing is energised by Interviews with Raj Kamal Jha, Rana Dasgupta, Kiran Nagarkar, Sampurna Chattarji, Naresh Fernandes, Jerry Pinto, Sandeep Roy, and Nilina Deb Lal, conducted in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata in 2017 and 2018.
The ten major texts I have chosen constitute a profuse material through which to explore the literary imagination of twenty-first-century Indian cities, and could be approached and connected in various manners. I have chosen to structure my literary cartography along the lines of the two aesthetic impulses I have identified, thus reflecting the primacy given to formal concerns in this work, which will thus move from one representational mode to another rather than following a thematic or geographic organising principle. The thesis is not structured as a succession of arguments on each author but attempts to sketch an overall logic which I hope will provide critical landmarks in this rich and diverse literary landscape. My comparative reading method also discouraged a geographical distribution of Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata into three different sections. My purpose is to draw lines between the three metropolises, which have had a prominent place in the Indian cultural imagination, while attending to their particularities. Thus, all the chapters include the three cities, with various emphases. In addition to restoring Delhi to view, one of the contributions brought about by this work is also to study these three cities together. Comparativism brings to light common features which, I believe, characterise other Indian cities, including ‘secondary cities’, whose growth, noted by geographers, will also certainly spur the imagination of more writers in the future.

Countering The ‘Project of Unseeing’

Roy’s, Dasgupta’s, and Jha’s writings dramatize the damages triggered by accelerated urbanisation outside the city as well as within it. As Lalit Batra argues, slum-clearance is part and parcel of the endeavour to build a ‘world-class city’, envisioned by and for the middle class, who considers slums as signs of underdevelopment that must be wiped out.111 The attempt to remove any sign of poverty from the city (from slum-dwellers to street vendors to homeless people, who have been under similar attacks since the 2000s) may be located within the politics of forgetting, defined earlier, implying the political and symbolical erasure of a significant part of the country’s population. These disenfranchised people, whether Muslims, tribal people, or Dalits, are the object of what Arundhati Roy calls ‘the Project of Unseeing’. Fiction, according to her, is the best way to challenge this scheme, because of its capacity to accommodate an infinite number of individual stories.If the colonial legacies of the categorisation of certain spaces as ‘slums’ have been amply demonstrated, the contemporary waves of slum-clearance can be more directly traced back to the Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi (1975-77), during which an authoritarian state ‘beautified’ Delhi by systematically destroying long-lasting squatter colonies, as echoed in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.113 Particularly important waves of slum-clearances occurred in the 2000s, in particular in the lead-up to the Commonwealth Games of 2010, which resulted in the demolition of informal settlements along the Yamuna riverbank in 2004-2005 and in the partial relocation of the inhabitants on the outskirts of the city, far from their employment. The advertised project was to turn it into a riverside promenade, marketed as a tourist attraction, exposing once more the prioritising of spectacle-driven consumption in urban planning.114 Ashraf, the protagonist of Aman Sethi’s literary reportage, was one of the slum-dwellers who was evicted and whose precarious home was destroyed in the Yamuna Pushta demolition campaign, which triggered public outrage (FM 38-39).


Spectacular Shocks, Outbursts of Violence

The epic aesthetic which dominates the narratives under scrutiny implies the intensification of the ‘shock of the metropolis’, the troubled encounter with the unknown and the unfamiliar in the new megacities of India. For modernist thinkers such as Georg Simmel and Walter Benjamin, who explored the new sensorial and social regimes of the modernist metropolis, urban life was defined by physical collisions and psychological shocks, the subject’s consciousness being constantly assaulted by an onslaught of stimuli.70 The urban landscape in the 1990s in India was also characterised by ‘the shock of the new’, ‘a plethora of signs indicating the arrival of new forms of mechanical and digital reproduction’.71 Yet the experiences of modernist and of late-modernist cities are also discordant, first of all because of the shift from urban planification to unplanned growth (often driven by private interests), and from industry to service and finance as the main engines of urban economy, which modify the social and sensorial fabric of the city. Drawing on the hypothesis that the shock of modernity is experienced with more acuteness in the semi-peripheries of the world-system, this section will explore the way Indian urban writing encodes the collisions of extremes at work in Indian cities. The polysemous notion of ‘shock’, referring to a sudden and violent blow, impact or collision, but also to an armed encounter and to a state of distress or disorientation, illuminates the multi-layered representation of violence at work in epic texts.

Table of contents :

1990s-2010s: The Global Metamorphosis of Indian Cities
1990s-2010s: Contemporary Shifts in the Indian Literary Landscape
I. From the Spatial Turn to Postcolonial and World-Literature Theory,
a Theoretical Itinerary
1. The City in Spatial Literary Studies
2. Indian Cities in Postcolonial and Urban Studies
3. Indian Cities in the Literary World-System
II. Presentation of the Corpus
III. The Two Entangled Modes of Indian Anglophone Urban Writing
1. The Epic Mode
2. The Ordinary Mode
IV. From Tumultuous to Familiar Literary Geographies: Approach and Outline 
I. The Cataclysmic (Re)Birth of Indian Cities
1. In the Eye of the Storm: The Eruption of the City
2. Cities Under Construction, Landscapes of Devastation
3. All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Masquerade of Urban Renewal
II. Writing Spatial Amnesia
1. Urban Space as Spectacle
2. Cities Built on Plunder
3. Countering The ‘Project of Unseeing’
I. Quests Through the Urban Jungle
1. The City as Antagonist
2. Slumming it?
II. Spectacular Shocks, Outbursts of Violence
1. Psychic Deformations
a. ‘Failed and Dissolute Knights’
b. American Psycho in Delhi
2. The Spectacle of Violence?
a. Between Ethnography and Sensationalism
b. Politicizing Violence
III. ‘Cities of Fortified Fragments’, or Planned Violence
1. Shopping Fortresses
2. Millennial Garden Cities
I. Rewriting the Genius Loci? The Exceptionality of Indian Cities
1. Mumbai’s Restlessness
2. Delhi, a City Doomed to be Destroyed
3. Excess as Strategic Exoticism?
II. Widening the Scope: Global Stories of Shock
1. Back to the Future? Critical Urban Dystopias
2. ‘Everlasting Uncertainty and Agitation’: Delirious Capitalist Cities
3. World Texts, Global Writers?
I. The City Through the Lens of the Locality
1. The Imagined Geographies of Kolkata’s Paras
2. Delhi’s Nukkad Novels
II. Street-Corner Ethnographies
1. The Participant Observation of the Locality
2. The Locality as a Domesticated Public Space
III. The City as a Common Space
1. The Collective Imagination of the Locality
2. The Common Language of the Street
I. ‘The Enduring Allure of the Everyday’
1. Through the Magnifying Glass: Defamiliarizing the Everyday
2. The Uncertainty of the Everyday
II. Circling around the Event
1. Dilating the Temporality of the Event
2. Muffling the Sounds of History
3. Miniaturising History
III. Writing Everyday Violence on a Minor Mode
1. Small Tragedies, Minor Events?
2. The ‘School of Cool’, or the Romanticising of Violence
I. Anti-Heroes: Debunking India’s Success Stories
1. Promises vs. Compromises
2. Failures and Wild Goose Chasers
II. ‘Real Utopias’: Reclaiming Urban Space
1. From Occupying to Seceding?
2. ‘A Foothold in the City’, Urban Micro-Politics
III. Grounded Texts, Rooted Writers?
1. The Writer as Archaeologist
2. ‘Localizing Dissent’
1. Map of Delhi
2. Map of Mumbai
3. Map of Kolkata
I. Primary Sources
1. Corpus
a. Selective Corpus
b.E xtended Corpus
2. Texts and Interviews of the Writers of the Corpus
a. Novels, Essays and Articles
b. Interviews Conducted by the Author
c. Interviews
3. Other Primary Sources
a. Literature
b. Cinema
4. Information Sources
II. Critical and Theoretical Sources
1. Literary Criticism
a. Literary Criticism on Indian Writing
b. General Literary Criticism and theory
2. Other critical and theoretical sources
a. Studies on India and Indian cities
b. Writings on the City
c. Social Sciences and Theory


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